During the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Sydney last March, then-Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull reiterated, “We believe in ASEAN centrality”. That repetition genuinely indicated where Australia stood, but desire cannot be taken to be destiny.
Over the past two years, the United States, Australia, Japan, and India have reinstituted the meeting of the “Quad” albeit at the senior official level rather than ministers. Along with China, these four countries are the region’s naval powers. The Quad members are committed to the notion of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) despite differences with respect to what each country means by that term.
As China is pushing to alter the regional strategic order, the non-ASEAN powers have moved to a countering mindset. The extent to which ASEAN remains central to the thinking of the Quad countries depends on how the 10-country organization and its individual members respond. If ASEAN is to retain diplomatic centrality, then it must change its mindset and Indonesia holds the key.
At first glance, the FOIP is a reaffirmation of the security and economic rules-based order cobbled together after World War II, especially regarding respect for international law, freedom of the regional and global commons such as air, sea and cyberspace, and the way nations conduct economic relations.
ASEAN states should be comfortable with the FOIP principles which protect the rights and privileges of all states regardless of size and power. But public reaction has ranged from being agnostic to silent scepticism. While states like Indonesia and Vietnam have shown interest in the concept, most would rather avoid talking about an idea that has been criticized by China.
There are fears that the change in and widening of geostrategic focus from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific will diminish the diplomatic centrality and relevance of ASEAN, although ASEAN-led meetings such as the East Asia Summit already includes India and shows an Indo-Pacific perspective. The fact that the newfound interest in the Indo-Pacific was an initiative by three non-ASEAN members heightens apprehension in ASEAN that diplomatic events and discussions may well transcend ASEAN centrality.
Furthermore, ASEAN states seek to manage relationships with great powers by championing principles of “inclusiveness” and “neutrality” (and maximizing diplomatic leverage through defending its privilege to define what these terms mean). If ASEAN is seen to support the FOIP, which is largely aimed against China, the cover of its commitment to “inclusiveness” and “neutrality” will be blown. If that occurs, the ramifications of Chinese displeasure are feared even if they are unknown.
The challenge for ASEAN is that what worked well in the past will be less effective in the evolving environment. China is increasingly challenging the U.S. pre-eminence and aspects of the rules-based order when it is convenient for Beijing to do so. Its grand strategy is to weaken the strategic role of the U.S. and degrade Washington’s credibility as a security provider, and gradually dismantle its system of alliances.
ASEAN’s principles of neutrality and inclusiveness are well suited to an environment without major disagreements between great powers. Such principles come under strain when strategic competition between the U.S. and its allies on the one hand, and China on the other is intensifying.
Moreover, ASEAN’s preference for conflict avoidance has caused the organization and many of its member states to take a softer line against China with respect to the South China Sea. This is occurring even as China is changing “facts on the water” in a manner that is shifting the strategic balance in its favor. Only five of the 10 ASEAN states are claimants. The U.S., Japan and Australia are becoming less sympathetic to the perspective that disagreement over the South China Sea is primarily a China-ASEAN issue and will not sit idly by if Beijing continues to make strategic advances in that body of water.
Thus “ASEAN centrality” is only meaningful if its centrality is accepted by external great powers. Impatience with ASEAN will grow if the latter continues to sit on its hands. While it remains cost-free for all powers to pay lip service to ASEAN centrality, the U.S. and allies may well bypass ASEAN entirely when it comes to the conversations about strategic issues that really matter.
This is where Indonesia comes in. Jakarta is comfortable with the Indo-Pacific concept, partly owing to its geography as a gateway between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Indonesia is willing to speak openly and bluntly about Chinese transgressions, including in the South China Sea.
In a speech in January, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi raised Indonesia’s interest in leading other Southeast Asian states to build a free and open regional framework for the Indo-Pacific. The explicit aim is to ensure ASEAN adopts an Indo-Pacific strategy to safeguard the interests of its members.
This is not simple and unthinking parroting of U.S. and allied priorities. It signals a proactive approach to advance Southeast Asian interests in an increasingly unsettled and dangerous environment — and bring ASEAN along with it at the same time.
It is a constructive way to engage with the U.S. and its allies and even seeks to shape the latter’s priorities in a way that serves the interests of ASEAN member states.
It seems Indonesia understands that ASEAN’s future is at stake.