The Indo-Pacific: A challenging concept

The concept of regionwide Indo-Pacific partnership and friendship looks good on paper. But as they say, the devil’s in the details

The Indo-Pacific: A challenging concept AFP Photo/Romeo Gacad

The concept of regional cooperation in the Indo-Pacific is being promoted by a number of global powers, but questions have emerged about the roles of regional players such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and individual member countries including Indonesia. Reflecting these doubts, an online survey conducted by the Singapore-based Asean Studies Center at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute last November found that the majority of respondents thought the Indo Pacific concept was “unclear and requires further elaboration.”

The survey also highlighted that there were lingering concerns about a “hidden agenda” behind the Indo-Pacific concept. Continuous clashes over which concept is correct risk sharpening distrust, stemming from the power competition between the United States and China (not to mention a nasty trade war), and threaten stability in the strategic region. This tension will undermine previous measures to build confidence in an area that features rapidly expanding economic activities and which is increasingly attracting the interests of global players. The Indo-Pacific paradigm also poses questions about Asean’s centrality in the region.

The United States, Japan, Australia and India have advocated the concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” to augment strategic cooperation among like-minded maritime powers, mainly as a way to contain China, which has been trying to exert greater power over countries through its multitrillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, there are multiple perspectives about the scope and possible effects of a new paradigm on the current order. While the term has frequently been utilized at various regional forums, the Asean Studies Center survey found that onequarter of respondents thought the “concept aims to contain China,” while 17 percent saw it working to “undermine Asean’s relevance and position in the regional order.” 

Despite the apparently different points of view, several similarities in the principles of America’s Indo-Pacific vision and China’s BRI vision have also been pointed out. Both initiatives span and overlap across the Indian and Pacific oceans – a center of global trade – and generally encourage cooperation, mainly on the back of improved maritime connectivity.

Asean’s centrality

While superpowers the United States and China are stressing their central positions in promoting their regional concepts, the strategically located Indo-Pacific region is too large for one country to dominate. This provides opportunity for multilateral groupings such as Asean and other frameworks to take the stage and start talks on possible cooperation. Last November, during their annual summit, the leaders of Asean member states agreed to start exploring mutually beneficial cooperation proposed by Asean partner states to deepen engagement in the region.

In a joint statement, the leaders concluded their meeting in Singapore by saying they aimed to create synergies with initiatives such as concepts and strategies in the Indo- Pacific raised by the United States, China’s BRI and Japan’s Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure initiative. According to the statement, the leaders recognized the need to strengthen an Asean-centric regional architecture that is open, transparent, inclusive and rules-based. A strategy to integrate Asean into the new concept would answer the public's doubts as well as concerns that Indo-Pacific cooperation will weaken the grouping. “There are no questions about whether Asean is in the driving seat of the Indo-Pacific; it is in
the driving seat,” Rory Medcalf, head of the Australian National University's National Security College, said in a discussion held by the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia in Jakarta in February.

Medcalf, who was involved in the formal inclusion of the Indo-Pacific concept in Australia’s Defense White Paper last year, argued that while the region and the scheme have fluid boundaries due to the growing interests of global powers from every direction, the concept’s definitive core is in Asia. “You could argue that Asean is more central in the Indo-Pacific than in the Belt and Road Initiative, which is regionalism centered in one country. Asean has more opportunity here … to establish the principle of ‘inclusivism,’” he said, noting that Asean will have a greater opportunity to involve China, which so far has been effectively left out of the discourse on the Indo-Pacific.

According to Medcalf, through existing mechanisms such as the Asean Regional Forum, East Asia Summit and Asean Defense Ministers Meeting Plus, the grouping could provide actual core strength to the Indo- Pacific concept while hosting conversations on the regional order. He noted that Asean and countries in the Asia-Pacific have begun building an Indo-Pacific architecture, and there is no appetite to build a new framework. The next steps, according to Medcalf, would be to identify areas for cooperation such as fisheries, and set guidelines for the behavior of countries at sea. “I don’t think countries would object (if Asean takes the lead),” he said, adding the cooperation could be based on the bloc’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which has been signed by 36 non-Asean member countries.

Indonesia’s take

A similar message on the importance of Asean and developments in the Indo- Pacific regional architecture were highlighted by President Joko Widodo during several Asean meetings in 2018. Uncertainty and the big global challenges faced by the Indo- Pacific region may threaten peace, stability, and prosperity with regard to the tug of war in the constellation of global forces, he said during November’s summit in Singapore.

President Joko said Asean must be able to serve as an axis, play its role and turn threats into increased cooperation. “Asean must always serve as an engine of peace and welfare. It must be able to change potential threats into cooperation and potential tensions into mpeace.” He added: “To maintain its centrality, Asean has no other choice but to use the East Asia Summit as a main platform to discuss this concept.”

Asean has yet to unite in one voice on the issue, Indonesia is once again urged to exercise its free and active approach in the creation of regional governance based on the Indo-Pacific concept, said Beginda Pakpahan, a political and economic analyst on global affairs at the University of Indonesia. “The goal is to make Asean an axis of symmetrical interests between itself and its external partners,” he said. “It can offer peace, regional stability and economic prosperity for countries located between the two oceans.”

Beyond the Asean community

Indonesia has long thought about the concept as a means to maintain its leadership of Asean and beyond. A proposal to have an Indo-Pacific treaty first surfaced under the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was known to nurture higher international ambitions than his successor, Joko. During a conference on Indonesia hosted by the Washingtonbased Center for Strategic and International Studies in May 2013, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa called for an Indo-Pacific treaty of friendship and cooperation.

Natalegawa said the future course of the Indo-Pacific region, which he called an economic power in its own right, is in Indonesia’s profound interest. Indonesia sits at the very center of the Indo-Pacific triangle, bounded by Japan, Australia and India. He noted three main challenges in the region, comprising a so-called trust deficit among some states in the region, the existence of unresolved territorial claims and a rapid transformation of regional states that affects the relationships between them. Indonesia’s proposed Indo- Pacific treaty, according to Natalegawa, would be an instrumental part in the evolution of the region and strengthen the commitment expressed by countries at the East Asia Summit in Bali in 2011.

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs official at that time explained that Natalegawa’s proposal was part of the minister’s vision to expand the role of Asean after the establishment of the Asean Community in 2015.

Still ‘neutral’

President Joko’s comments and his use of the Indo-Pacific term were seen as a move to distance himself from the Chinese worldview and side more with the United States. However, experts agree that there are no radical changes in Indonesia's independent, nonaligned foreign policy.

Shafiah Muhibat, head of the international relations department at Jakarta's Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Indonesia’s recent emphasis on the Indo-Pacific concept was mainly based on trends that more state actors are also focusing on the region. “Indonesia does not put the Indo-Pacific as its ‘vital’ area, but the country is increasingly interested in the region,” she said in an interview, while noting that the government still maintains Asean as its geopolitical priority.

During the East Asia Summit in November, it was apparent that President Joko was attempting to balance the interests of the United States and China by inviting the latter to take part and cooperate more closely with Asean within the Indo-Pacific concept. According to him, Asean sees China as a potential partner for advancing Indo-Pacific cooperation, in which the parties could at least increase cooperation in the maritime sector. He said the concept, which was Jakarta’s main focus in the series of meetings, was not intended to isolate or include any specific countries.

President Joko may attempt to position Indonesia as the balancing power in Asia- Pacific beyond Asean, but Yohanes Sulaiman, an international relations observer from Jenderal Achmad Yani University in Cimahi, West Java Province, said in a research paper published in January that the

Countries must seek agreement over a definition of the Indo-Pacific concept that covers every common interest including security, commerce and, most pressingly, the impact of climate change.

country still had no coherent Indo-Pacific strategy. He noted that Indonesia’s sole goal in its Indo-Pacific strategy was to avoid being dragged into conflict that would threaten its bargaining power. He wrote: “Indonesia takes a multilateral institutional approach that it hopes will lower tensions in the region and maintain the status quo both in the region and domestically.” In terms of policy implications, Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific policy lacks anything concrete beyond more economic and sociocultural cooperation, he said, adding that this is understandable given the main focus of President Joko’s foreign policy is to expand the country’s markets.

Direction still unclear

Negotiations to streamline Asean member states’ views on the Indo- Pacific cooperation concept present another opportunity for Indonesia to play its role as the leader of the regional bloc. The cooperation platform also offers a chance for President Joko to pursue his ambition to make Indonesia
a “maritime axis” – an idea that has been mostly forgotten and buried under his other development goals and programs. However, although the president seems to have become more comfortable in global platforms, he is still largely indifferent to foreign affairs.

He nonetheless surprised global leaders when he made reference to pop culture during speeches at the World Economic Forum and International Monetary Fund-World Bank conferences last year. The president warned of increasing protectionism and looming trade wars across the globe, and called for nations to brace for more uncertainty. (This turned out to be spot on, given the US-China trade war, US President Donald J Trump’s threat in late May to slap tariffs on Mexican imports if it didn’t stop migrants from crossing the border seeking asylum, and his administration’s announcement nearly the same day to strip India of special trade status.)

The varying stances of Asean countries toward the United States and China, especially in a period when no members show strong leadership, will continue to hinder efforts to push for unity. The grouping also faces a challenge to synchronize the different perspectives among its members before devising a strategy to take the driver’s seat in establishing an Indo-Pacific cooperation platform. Despite the calls for a united voice as a community, individual nations’ personal interests are likely to continue to overshadow the Asean view.

No country alone can cope with the frictions and challenges emerging from higher interconnectivity within the Indo-Pacific. It is imperative for Asean nations and their partners to continue and enhance talks to improve synergies, in order to reduce both existing tensions and potential for conflict. Countries must seek agreement over a definition of the Indo-Pacific concept that covers every common interest including security, commerce and, most pressingly, the impact of climate change in a region closely interlinked by oceans. Ensuring involvement of all stakeholders and powers is equally important, as excluding any country will be counterproductive in maintaining peace and security.

Shinta Eka Puspasari is an analyst with Jakarta-based Concord Consulting.

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