[Analytics] What critics miss on ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific Outlook

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations mistakenly posted a Philippine flag with the red field on top in its greeting on the country's 121st Independence Day. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

With its strongman leader and pro-China outlook, analysts remain doubtful about Cambodia’s pledge to ‘strengthen ASEAN centrality’ under its chairmanship in 2022. The prospect of reinforcing an ASEAN-centred region, as envisioned by the ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, is also being questioned. Arrizal Jaknanihan specially for the East Asia Forum.

It is true that the Outlook has various shortcomings, including a lack of actionable policy. It is also premised on the flawed assumption that existing ASEAN-led platforms are sufficient to stabilise tensions in the Indo-Pacific. And as geopolitical feuds continue to intensify, the document remains vague and includes no detailed framework to link the different Indo-Pacific visions of ASEAN’s partners. The five-page document does not include a roadmap for implementation, making it little more than an aspirational statement.

Still, much of the criticism of the Outlook is based on incorrect assumptions about how ASEAN operates. As veteran Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan says, ‘it is utterly useless to criticise a cow for being an imperfect horse’. Without recognising ASEAN’s modus operandi, some might overlook the degree of agency it can exercise through the document.

The Outlook was never meant to be a strategy, let alone a treaty. It follows ASEAN’s tradition of maximising member agency by refraining from exercising hard power or enforcing binding arrangements. Internal members can build consensus by agreeing on less-contentious areas of cooperation while leaving adequate space to pursue their different interests.

Instead of creating a full-fledged security strategy, ASEAN’s strength has long been in norm-setting and confidence-building measures. Strategic outcomes aside, the feats of the Outlook are evident in the discursive arena and negotiations where it naturally excels.

ASEAN showcased its centrality when it was able to ‘absorb different Indo-Pacific narratives’ and own them argues Khanisa Krisman, a researcher from Indonesia’s National Research and Innovation Agency.

ASEAN built further credibility by leading negotiations involving partners locked in competition with one another, including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that finally entered into force in 2022. Without neutrality, ASEAN would not have been able to link China with Australia, Japan and 12 other Asia Pacific nations that now form the world’s largest single trading bloc.

And for the first time, China subscribed to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept in a joint statement to commemorate the 30th year of China–ASEAN dialogue. Beijing reaffirmed the principles of the Outlook, recognising it as ASEAN’s ‘independent initiative’, that is ‘open and inclusive’. The document represents a milestone for ASEAN in neutralising the Indo-Pacific discourse, considering China’s previously dismissive response towards the concept.

Similarly, four years after former US President Donald Trump’s ‘withdrawal’ from the region, Washington is displaying a clear effort to return to the region by engaging ASEAN. Although US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s latest Indo-Pacific speeches in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur only represent an incremental development, the message is clear: ASEAN is indispensable for the United States.

As regional tensions escalate, the need for an inclusive dialogue platform is becoming even more urgent to avoid the ‘tipping point’ where conflict breaks out, argues prominent Indonesian scholar Dewi Fortuna Anwar.

ASEAN’s members also do not rely exclusively on the ASEAN platform. Although ‘buck-passing’ is evident in many instances — where ASEAN members defer difficult decisions to ASEAN as a whole — individual members can still pursue different strategies through the loose institutionalisation within ASEAN and its Indo-Pacific Outlook.

Instead of imposing a limitation, ASEAN’s ‘agnosticism’ gives its members leeway. For example, Vietnam strengthened its ties with Quad countries while still demonstrating an equally strong commitment to ASEAN as chair of the organization in 2020.

Although the Outlook eschews the security focus, some members are still ramping up their defence arrangements — including with actions such as the Philippines’ restoration of the Visiting Force Agreement with the United States, and Indonesia’s warming defence ties with key Indo-Pacific countries including the United States, India and France.

It is misleading to assume that individual member states share the same threat perceptions regarding China. With its long history of colonialism and intervention, ASEAN views Beijing and Washington as equally untrustworthy. This means preserving autonomy is still the end goal.

By remaining neutral, ASEAN has been able to reap benefits from both China’s massive economic output and the US security network while remaining equidistant from the two.

Effective deterrence against China is still needed, yet the perceived degree of need varies greatly between ASEAN members. The differences in perceptions of China and the mechanisms aimed against it — such as the Quad and AUKUS — can’t be fully accommodated through consensus, so the Outlook omits them and focuses instead on more palatable areas where everyone can agree.

These recent developments show the Outlook’s merits in retaining ASEAN’s agency and role as a regional convenience. It remains a platform that external powers can’t bypass to secure their interests.

But while the Outlook has gone in a positive direction, member states should also invest in extra-ASEAN options to bolster their autonomy. Given its limitations, the Outlook is best measured by ASEAN’s ability to foster inclusivity, build confidence, and maximise the agency of its members. Investing in other bilateral or minilateral relationships is equally crucial to achieve more strategic outcomes.

Arrizal Jaknanihan is an Assistant Lecturer in the Department of International Relations, Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia. Some material referenced in this article was gathered in interviews conducted during his research at the Research Center for Politics, Indonesia’s National Research and Innovation Agency.

Share it

Exclusive: Beyond the Covid-19 world's coverage