Geopolitics

ASEAN - The key Player in the Indo-Pacific Region
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Issue Vol. 39.1, Jan-Mar 2024 | Date : 11 May , 2024

Source-https://3.bp.blogspot.com/

The uncertainties of the Cold War and communist insurrections that reared their heads across the globe, including in Southeast Asia, fuelled Nationalist as well as transnational fervour to establish stable Governments and alliances for mutual growth and prosperity. These movements envisioned ‘marshalling resources’ of extant fragmented economies of the Region, whilst keeping communist fires at bay. The alliance borne out of such incentives in Southeast Asia emerged as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), established on 08 August 1967 in Bangkok, with the signing of the ASEAN Declaration by its five founding members-Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

The Signing of The ASEAN Declaration in 1967: Source-asean.org

The present ASEAN Emblem embodies the ASEAN vision for Southeast Asia and the larger Asian and Indo-Pacific Region (IPR). It represents a stable, peaceful, united and dynamic ASEAN. The ten bound stalks of rice, represent the present Member States (MS) of ASEAN, bound together in friendship and solidarity. The outer circle represents the unity of ASEAN.

The Organic and Influential Growth of ASEAN, Its Mandated and Expanding Roles

The aims and purposes set out in the original two-page ASEAN Declaration referred to multilateral cooperation, and to the promotion of regional peace and stability, while adhering to the principles of the United Nations (UN) Charter. It stipulated that ASEAN would be open for participation by all States in the Southeast Asian region willing to subscribe to its aims, principles and purposes. This opened the door for expansion of ASEAN into its present form and subscription.

Source- ias4sure.com

Post founding of ASEAN by the original five MS in 1967, Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), Myanmar and Cambodia joined ASEAN between 1984 and 1999, some after having been initially accorded Observer Status (OS) – thus making up what is today the ten MSof ASEAN. A number of States in Asia, including Sri Lanka and Turkey, presently seek grant of membership/OS. There have also been recommendations that Australia and New Zealand join ASEAN, having already been accorded status as ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Dialogue Partners (DPs), along with eight other Nations.

The ARF was set up in 1993 as a regional security cooperation platform, based on deliberations between ASEAN MS and ASEAN full DPs. In 1995, the ARF agreed to a three-stage process to effectively manage security issues, including Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), development of preventive diplomacy and elaboration of approaches to conflicts. At present, ARF has 27 members.

The ASEAN Plus Three (APT) consists of ten ASEAN MS, China, Japan and South Korea (+3 States). The process for the APT began in December 1997, on the sidelines of the 2nd ASEAN Informal Summit Meeting in Malaysia. The APT has since evolved into the main coordinator for East-Asian cooperation, with ASEAN as the main driver. The APT also supports the implementation of the ASEAN Community Vision 2025, to pave the way towards deeper regional integration in East Asia. The current APT Cooperation Work Plan (ACWP) 2023-2027, is aimed to further strengthen the APT in accordance with the ASEAN Charter and other initiatives, elucidated below.

The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) is a peace treaty amongst Southeast Asian Nations ratified by the founding members of ASEAN. The TAC today includes 51 countries including the US, Russia, China, Australia, Japan and the EU! The purposes and principles of TAC along with its provisions to resolve regional disputes are in alignment with the Charter of the UN, which underlines the TAC’s global acceptance.

The East Asia Summit (EAS) was conceptualised during the 8th APT summit meeting in 2004 and represents a larger superset of the APT, additionally including India, Australia and New Zealand. This group evolved into the ASEAN Plus Six (APS). The EAS plays a pivotal role in the regional dynamics of the Asia-Pacific Region (APR) – which includes countries in East/Southeast Asia and Oceania that border the Pacific Ocean. Presently, with the ASEAN Free Trade Area (FTA) agreement embracing all MS of ASEAN, East Asian trade has reached 55%, more than a 30% increase from the last decade and a significant incentive for regional direct investments. The APS has evolved into a prerequisite for the planned East Asia Community (proposed trade bloc for East/Southeast Asian countries), modelled on the erstwhile European Community, now the EU.

The EAS also promotes ‘effective synergy’ among regional connectivity initiatives, including the implementation of the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) 2025 with support from ASEAN’s external partners1. The MPAC looks at five key strategic areas: sustainable infrastructure/urbanisation; enhanced digital trade/data governance; seamless logistics for supply chain efficiency/cross-border transit; regulatory standards to reduce non-tariff barriers/regional average price of agricultural products; and people mobility-aimed at improving intra-ASEAN travel/free movement of skilled labour within ASEAN. The MPAC thus envisions a seamlessly connected and integrated ASEAN2 that supports recovery from, and builds resilience to, wavering fortunes within ASEAN and its larger eco-system (which would also include the IPR) with respect to economic/health calamities and inter-State frictions.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), initiated in September 2020, is a Free Trade Agreement among 15 MS from the APR and includes all APT MS, Australia and New Zealand (two Oceanian countries that are part of the APS). India is a notable exception. The RCEP thus includes 50% of the QUAD. It accounts for 30% of the world’s population and 30% of global GDP ($29.7 trillion)3, making it the largest trade forum ever globally.

Another economically driven alliance with similar regional overlap is the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), formed in 1989 – a forum of 21 Member economies in the Pacific Rim, that promotes free trade throughout the APR, drawing motivation from the success of ASEAN. APEC enjoys standing as one of the oldest multilateral forums in the APR and exerts significant influence in the IPR/globally. APEC has three official observers: the ASEAN Secretariat, the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (23 MS spread across the Americas, ASEAN and East Asia) and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (18 MS spread across Oceania in the Southern Pacific) – thus affording a further platform for cooperation and understanding in the IPR.

ASEAN’s Position as a Balancer in the IPR

The APR and Indian Ocean Region (IOR), major subsets of the Indo-Pacific arena, are amongst the most dynamic epicentres of economic growth. Changes in economic fortunes, like the Cold-War fallout, individual crises in resident Nations (like the Cambodian crisis),the situation in the South China Sea (SCS) and COVID-19 can and do result in geopolitical and geostrategic shifts. These shifts are based on strengths and weaknesses of current players within and outside the region, as also extant opportunities and challenges, which support, or are inimical to, positive regional growth, respectively. It is therefore prudent to define and examine the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that ASEAN enjoys or faces in its perceived centrality as balancer in the IPR.

Source-ilearncana.com

Strengths

The traditional regional ‘centrality’ of ASEAN behoves on MS to abide by the ‘ASEAN’ Way-characterized by the principles of non-interference, consensus-building, and mutual respect. DPs and external powers are also therefore, bound to involve ASEAN in major policy dialogue in the region. This further cements ASEAN’s standing as a ‘mediator’ and ‘common sounding board’ for affairs in Southeast/East Asia and the IOR. ASEAN’s many concentric initiatives/alliances/associated fora, notably, the APR, APS, RCEP, EAS, ASEAN Maritime Forum (AMF), AOIP, IORA and the ASEAN Free Trade Area (FTA), as well as respect for international law, such as the UN Charter, the 1982 UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea and UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), bring to the table many ‘rules-based’ engagements and formal/informal binding policies. These serve ASEAN’s centrality and facilitate economic prosperity and security in Southeast Asia in particular and in ASEAN’s extended neighbourhood, which includes South/East Asia and the Western Pacific.

ASEAN enjoys the presence/attention of two global powers – the US and China. The USis a longstanding DP of ASEAN since 1977. ASEAN has continued to maintain its opinion of the US being a ‘stabilising’ force in the post-Cold-War regional construct, and has initiated several fora and alliances where the US is invariably engaged in the security governance of ASEAN and the IPR at large. The ARF and TAC are such inclusive initiatives. At the last ASEAN Summit, attended by US President Joe Biden, ASEAN-US relations were upgraded to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.’China, on the other hand, enjoys geographical proximity to ASEAN and centrality in the IPR. It also enjoys historic/cultural commonality with ASEAN MS. Beijing’s ideological focus of ensuring and maintaining a peaceful, secure and prosperous neighbourhood, works to strengthen ASEAN’s cause. China has also been a pioneer in many of ASEAN’s initiatives, including the TAC, and has the widest cooperation interface with ASEAN. China’s economic influence in ASEAN is unparalleled, with both China and ASEAN emerging as each other’s foremost trading partners. Both the US and China support free/subsidised trade alliances within ASEAN. The US’ and China’s unwavering economic engagement with ASEAN provides the latter with stability and relative immunity from external economic or geopolitical ‘shocks,’ like the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War. Capacity building in MS, from which ASEAN is bound to derive a positive fallout, is ostensibly supported by the US and China. India, part of the EAS and APS, is a powerhouse in South Asia, and is now intrinsically woven into the larger ASEAN calculus.

Weaknesses

The ‘ASEAN Way,’ while ensuring ASEAN’s enduring presence, may have tended to erode its relevance in resolution of State-on-State imbroglios like the territorial disputes in the SCS and challenges to democratic functioning in Myanmar and to a lesser extent, in the Philippines and Thailand.

ASEAN’s relevance as a Regional Security Initiative (RSI) has also come under question due to its ameliorative approach. While the role of an institutional stabilizerneeds to remain paramount, regional power-balancing, at times, needs to also take recourse to carefully deliberated political ‘hedging,’ featuring a mix of cooperative and confrontational strategies, in order to establish the ASEAN ‘writ.’ This aspect has at times been found wanting. Similarly, ASEAN has not been able to efficiently indulge in political band-wagoning when necessary, by leveraging the might of the two affiliated global powers towards coercing MS and the larger regional calculus to amicably resolve contentious issues. ASEANS’s less than forceful criticism of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a testimony to this concern.

This diplomatic lethargy at times struggles to generate much-required response strategies in keeping pace with shifting power dynamics across the IPR, which understandably, is a large swathe of geographical space. Such sluggishness might prove counterproductive, since it leaves open a gaping window for more powerful and determined Nations/alliances to establish their writ. This could give rise to mini-alliances between larger powers and MS, which can run contrary to the desired geostrategic calculus of the region.

Last but not least, ASEAN’s insistence on ‘rules-based’ engagements with primacy of regional statutes, does not sit well with international powers, including the US, who firmly believe unwavering adherence to international law is the binding statute for settlement of all regional/extra-regional disputes.

Opportunities

ASEAN’s regional and extra-regional initiatives provide ample opportunity to restore and consolidate ASEAN’s primacy and centrality in the region. Added to this, the affiliation with the US and China, provides an opportunity to indulge in a subsidised, mutually favourable economic engagement with these powers. This would not only prove economically advantageous, but would serve as a security insurance against external powers, including Russia,interfering in the region.

Alliances like the IORA and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), bring to the table the IOR littorals and reckonable powers in South Asia, principally India. Both BIMSTEC and IORA include membership of some ASEAN MS, which could provide a catalyst to initiate working opportunities with these regional alliances. Similarly, APR and APS provide an additional engagement opportunity with the heavyweights of South/East Asia, while the APEC brings with it the Nations along the Pacific Rim. Such cooperative alliances would further bring the ASEAN centrality to the fore in the IPR. The ASEAN MPAC provides a significant opportunity for regional infrastructure improvement, enhancement of connectivity and boosting of free trade/Foreign Direct Investment. In short, these alliances serve to create a vibrant and appealing investment forum, thus bolstering ASEAN’s position and securing insulation against external inimical actions.

Against the backdrop of ASEAN’s role in balancing regional/extra-regional ‘tidal forces,’ ASEAN Leaders agreed in 2019 to forge an initiative that reinforces ASEAN’s engagement road map in the IPR – the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). The AOIP views the IPR as a region with ASEAN as the pivot and interconnected by mutual economic interests,as also the importance of the vast maritime domain within this region for mutual growth. It suffices to say that the +3 alliance of the APT plays a major role in the continued success of the AOIP and ensures continued engagement with the vast number of signatories of the TAC! Such growth is expected to be achieved through extra-regional frameworks like IORA, BIMSTEC and the Mekong Subregional Cooperation. AOIP also looks to strengthen several ASEAN Plus-One mechanisms to expand extra-ASEAN trade, including those with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia-New Zealand and Hong Kong.

The ASEAN Maritime Forum (AMF), with a focus on maritime safety, connectivity and sharing of marine resources, complements the AOIP’s and IORA’s maritime agenda, since in the wider Indian Ocean region, IORA is the only region-wide body designed to facilitate regional dialogue at the Government-to-Government level. The IORA and AMF bring inclusivity for ASEAN to promote the agenda of a centralised, flexible framework for functioning, with respect to the vast ocean space in the IPR.

The UN SDG’s targets as well as those of the 2030 UN Agenda for Sustainable Development (whose goals amongst others, include protection of human/natural resources and development of inclusive societies),align with those of the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 and the wider EAS vision, which would be a significant opportunity for ASEAN to find favour with the global community.

The US Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS)-22, elucidates ‘modernized alliances, flexible partnerships, an empowered ASEAN, a leading India, …. and sustained focus on and commitment to the region at all levels…. This clearly enunciates that ASEAN and US, with convergent aims of a more prosperous and order-based IPR, will emerge as collaborative partners in this respect.

Apropos the above opportunities, ASEAN now has a far greater number of strategic tools to shape regional architecture, and act as an influencer/balancer in the broader Asian region/IPR.

Threats

While ASEAN centrality and inclusiveness are expected to contribute to regional/extra-regional stability and growth, the rise of economic and military powers in the region, as well as the influence of global powers, like China, the US and possibly Russia, could infuse mistrust, intrigue, and geopolitical manoeuvres based on a zero-sum game. Such powers could create self-beneficial conditions for expanding geopolitical influence or, more ostensibly, garnering maritime resources. This could inhibit the growth of individual MS or ASEAN as a whole and possibly turn ASEAN into a boiling pot for geopolitical/military conflict. Apropos, ASEAN runs the risk of being caught up in a global power game.

Mini-lateral forums, as enunciated in the joint statement issued by US, Japan and South Korea,aim at expanding trilateral cooperation and ASEAN Plus-One agreements. These may prove unfavourable, as individual MS are drawn into one-on-one alliances with external powers, which may undermine ASEAN’s overall interest.

India’s Engagement with ASEAN

India’s involvement with ASEAN can be gauged from its Look-East and later Act-East Policies, and the 2019 Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), which seeks a stable, secure and sustainable maritime domain in the region. IPOI is thus convergent with similar priority areas in AOIP and EAS, towards reinforcing India’s position and ASEAN centrality in this vast maritime domain. The India-led dialogues include the annual ‘ASEAN-India Summit’ and the ASEAN-India Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (ASEAN Post Ministerial Conference 10+1 Sessions with DPs). The ‘Delhi Dialogue’ is the principal Track 1.5 dialogue for engagement, hosted by India annually at the Foreign Minister’s level.

India, as part of various ASEAN fora, BIMSTEC and SAARC, provides an enduring pivot to ASEAN to influence the order in the IPR, the former being already recognised as a power centre/balancer in South Asia and a net security provider in the IOR. India’s shift from non-alignment to multiple engagement is a welcome development for an inclusive ASEAN since it represents India’s capability to form its own version of the US ‘hub-and-spokes’ paradigm in South Asia with extended reach into ASEAN and the IPR.

In 2022-23, India-China/India-US bilateral trade stood at US$ 113.83 Billion3/US$ 128.55 Billion4 respectively, while India-ASEAN bilateral trade stands at US$ 131.5 Billion5, making ASEAN India’s fourth-largest trading partner! India, therefore, provides an economic rallying point for ASEAN. This in itself presents an infallible economic/security safeguard for ASEAN and by extension (albeit less significantly), to its MS. ASEAN Economic Ministers-India Consultations (AEM + India) represents a vehicle for economic cooperation in this direction. Major economic cooperation agreements include the ASEAN-India Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation which mandates the creation of an ASEAN-India FTA, the ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement, the ASEAN-India Agreement for Trade in Services and Agreement on Investment. The ASEAN-India Business Council has also been set up at the functional level to promote economic cooperation.

India’s regional bilateral engagements include security, infrastructure development, climate change and free trade. These facets of engagement also extend to individual MS, signatories and DPs of ASEAN. IPS-22 envisages India as a ‘concurring, critical strategic partner…, efficient to lead South Asia and the Indian Ocean…., and an apparatus for regional progress and development…’

In the face of a re-emerging multi-polar world, a comprehensive, multi-tier partnership would be an opportunity for both ASEAN and India to mutually maximise existent strengths and diminish weaknesses. This would help ASEAN re-establish its centrality in the region and assume a pivotal role in the IPR, while allowing India to achieve its sub-regional and strategic objectives for growth and security in South Asia.

The Way Ahead

An emerging global paradigm with multiple power-centres would necessitate the forging of new geostrategic alliances based on converging economic/security interests or consternations. As alliances such as the QUAD and AUKUS mature, these could engage in institutional cooperation in the ASEAN region based on multilateral/bilateral frameworks. Differing perspectives on short/mid-term geostrategic outcomes may also catalyse geopolitical manoeuvre by extra-regional heavyweights, with unilateral interests. While the US, China, and other major powers have repeatedly highlighted the pre-eminence of ‘ASEAN centrality’ in the IPR, these newly emerging frameworks and blocs could potentially marginalise ASEAN’s existential relevance. In other words, the current great-power rivalry between the US and China as well as any future incursions by other heavyweights like Russia, could erode the historic relevance of ASEAN as the traditional pre-eminent RSI in the Asia-Pacific.

A facet in ASEAN’s favour in the third decade of the 21st century could be the decline of the US as the pre-eminent ‘policy pusher’, as a direct fallout of China’s growing military, economic and geopolitical status globally. China, apart from being a part of all ASEAN-led alliances wherein US is a part, also wields considerable influence in the UN and organisations like SCO and BRICS, the latter allowing China to exercise influence in South and Central Asia. This is bound to have repercussions on the power play in the IPR, wherein the future could be looking at a balanced US-China power calculus, broke red by ASEAN, in the region.

The ‘ASEAN Way,’ aligned to ameliorative engagement and non-interference, will facilitate ASEAN’s mediation and governance of non-traditional security issues, such as natural disasters, piracy, and international terrorism, across the regional commons. In a 21st Century paradigm, where such challenges are frequent and commonplace, ASEAN would continue to assume a central role in shaping regional and extra-regional peace and stability against such challenges.

The 43rd ASEAN Summit, held from 05 to 07 September 2023, reviewed the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus for Myanmar(reiterating an immediate end to violence, encouragement of dialogue, appointment of a special envoy and provision of humanitarian assistance by ASEAN)and focussed on, among other themes, ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific6 and the Blue Economy Framework (an ‘integrated, cross-sectoral and cross-stakeholder approach covering facets of the marine sector and acting as a catalyst for renewable energy, biotechnology, and research – making the Blue Economy the new engine for ASEAN’s future economic growth’7).Apropos, in a validation of the region’s centrality towards global prosperity, ASEAN will aim to diversify its economic cooperation arrangements. As part of this exercise, realisation of an APS FTA, as well as support for the US Indo-Pacific Economic Framework could well set an ASEAN-led economic alliance barrelling into the third decade.

Conclusion

It is unambiguous that the IPR, with Southeast Asia at its geographical and geopolitical centre, promises to be a global boiling pot in the immediate and foreseeable future. If that be the case, there is no denying the centrality of ASEAN to the region’s fortunes. It therefore behoves on ASEAN to evolve from being an advocate of inclusive economic and developmental cooperation to a more outspoken role of emphasising its conviction for a geostrategic balance in the region, with a stable regional architecture. Such a step forward would enduringly cement ASEAN’s position as a geostrategic balancer in the IPR!

Endnotes

  1. Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025: Mid-Term Review
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Brig Arvind Dhananjayan

has Commanded an Operational Brigade and has been Brigadier-in-Charge Administration in a Premier Training Facility. He has had exposure abroad on deputation to Botswana, Southern Africa as member of an Indian Army Training Team.

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