Over nearly a decade, the concept of the Indo-Pacific has been gaining ground as a term that gives credence to a strategic perspective rather than a well-defined geographic entity. When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke about the `confluence of the two seas, where the Indian and Pacific Oceans are to be viewed as a single strategic maritime unit’, it was based on the understanding of a geopolitical reality rather than a geographic one.
While there is a debate on the exact contours of the boundaries of the Indo-Pacific region, the common understanding is that it is a triangular region that connects the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. This region is identified as having Japan on its northern boundary, Australia forming the southeastern parts, and as India lying in the southwestern end. Much of Southeast Asia falls within the triangular boundaries of the Indo-Pacific, making the claim of its centrality to this region extremely significant.
Historically, there has been an understanding that Southeast Asia lies between two great civilisational worlds, India and China. Southeast Asian historian Reginald LeMay has described the region as the bamboo curtain that shifts with the changing cultural impacts of both India and China. While these two great civilisations influenced the region in the period prior to colonialism, even today, the involvement of major powers in the region is an issue that remains critical. For the regional countries, potentially, there are both risks and possibilities of greater integration.
Being in the center of the Indo-Pacific region creates stress for the ASEAN countries regarding the way they relate to major powers. The ASEAN has always looked at the involvement of major powers as a measure of the region’s importance.
However, China’s rise and the individual states’ response to it alters this view, particularly at the bilateral level. Among the key issues in this context is the ongoing tensions in South China Sea (SCS). The logic of extending the Indo-Pacific to include the SCS and the East China Sea reiterates the importance of maintaining the freedom of navigation in the seas and also does not entitle any single nation to claim the waters as their own.
One of the advantages for the ASEAN countries is that all the current institutional mechanisms in the region are being driven by the ASEAN’s processes. For this to be successful, the ASEAN needs to be united and cohesive and this itself is a challenge. Over the past two years, there have been attempts to address the question of reviving ASEAN unity, particularly after the polarisation of the organisation during the 2012 summit over the SCS dispute. Differences over the manner in which individual countries relate and respond to China’s rise are pushing countries out of their comfort zones and is threatening the pillars of consensus and consultation that have been critical for the ASEAN. As a result, the focus on security issues in the region may not remain ASEAN-centric but is likely to get overshadowed by other factors. While the ASEAN may seek to maintain itself as the core of the Indo-Pacific, there are varying opinions on the manner in which the region’s politico-security relations are being shaped, and it has been unable to provide the leadership for addressing some of the challenges that have emerged in the region.
Another area of significant gain for the ASEAN relates to its potential for economic growth. The economic success of the region, galvanised by China, Japan and India, remain critical factors that drive forward the centrality of this region. The ASEAN-initiated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will bring these three Asian giants under one common umbrella – that will be a significant step towards the economic integration of the region. The RCEP is a critical element in keeping the centrality of the focus on the ASEAN countries as it seeks to coordinate the ASEAN and its dialogue partners into a common economic platform that will address issues of tariff reductions and will move towards a wide-ranging regional Free Trade Area. The inclusion of South Korea, Australia and New Zealand increases the economic stakes in the Indo-Pacific further, making this one of the credible areas for further integration.
Finally, while the ASEAN may see itself as the link or corridor that connects the Indian and the Pacific oceans through a gamut of security-driven institutional norms such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defence Minister's Meeting Plus, it has to look beyond preliminary initiatives. While the initiatives seek to address the need for confidence-building, they fall short on the areas of preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution. The current arrangements fall way below expectation on these areas. For the ASEAN, the centrality of its position can be more consolidated if it can address and strengthen these aspects of regional cooperation.
In fact Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s proposal for an Indo-Pacific Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation would be a key step in this direction. His call to address the trust deficit and the need to promote a common sense of responsibility will need to be kept at the forefront of the ASEAN initiatives in the region.