By Arrizal Jaknanihan*
With its strong leader and pro-China outlook, analysts remain skeptical of Cambodia’s commitment to “strengthen ASEAN centrality” under his chairmanship in 2022 is also in question.
It is true that Outlook has various shortcomings, including the absence of concrete policy. It is also based on the mistaken assumption that the existing ASEAN-led platforms are sufficient to stabilize tensions in the Indo-Pacific. And while the geopolitical squabbles continue to escalate, the document remains vague and does not include any detailed framework for linking the different Indo-Pacific visions of ASEAN partners. The five-page document does not include a roadmap for implementation, making it little more than an ambitious statement.
Yet much of the Outlook’s criticism is based on incorrect assumptions about how ASEAN works. As veteran Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan puts it, “It is quite pointless to criticize a cow as an imperfect horse.” Without acknowledging ASEAN’s modus operandi, some might overlook the degree of agency it can exert through the document.
The Outlook was never meant to be a strategy, much less a treaty. It follows the ASEAN tradition of maximizing member agency by refraining from exercising hard power or enforcing binding agreements. Internal members can build consensus by agreeing on less contentious areas of cooperation while leaving enough 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, Outlook’s exploits are evident in the discursive arena and negotiations where it naturally excels.
ASEAN showed its centrality when it was able to “absorb different Indo-Pacific narratives” and own them, says Khanisa Krisman, a researcher at the Indonesian National Agency for Research and Innovation.
ASEAN has enhanced its credibility by conducting negotiations involving partners in competition with each other, including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which finally entered into force in 2022. Without neutrality, ASEAN would not have been in able to connect China to Australia, Japan and 12 other Asian countries. The Pacific nations that today form the largest trading bloc in the world.
And for the first time, China endorsed the “Indo-Pacific” concept in a joint statement to commemorate the 30th anniversary of China-ASEAN dialogue. Beijing has reaffirmed the principles of the Outlook, recognizing it as the “independent initiative” of ASEAN, that is to say “open and inclusive”. The document represents an important step for ASEAN in neutralizing Indo-Pacific discourse, given China’s previously dismissive response to the concept.
Likewise, four years after former US President Donald Trump’s “withdrawal” from the region, Washington is showing 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 represent only incremental development, the message is clear: ASEAN is indispensable to the United States.
As regional tensions escalate, the need for an inclusive dialogue platform becomes even more urgent to avoid the “tipping point” where conflict erupts, says prominent Indonesian scholar Dewi Fortuna Anwar.
ASEAN members also do not rely exclusively on the ASEAN platform. Although the “passing of responsibility” is evident in many cases – where ASEAN members defer difficult decisions to ASEAN as a whole – individual members can still pursue different strategies thanks to the loose institutionalization within of ASEAN and its Indo-Pacific prospects.
Instead of imposing a limitation, the “agnosticism” of ASEAN leaves room for maneuver to its members. For example, Vietnam has strengthened its ties with the Quad countries while demonstrating an equally strong commitment to ASEAN as the organization’s chair in 2020.
Although the Outlook eschews a focus on security, some members are still bolstering their defense arrangements – including with actions such as the Philippines’ restoration of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, and Indonesia’s warming defense ties with major 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 considers Beijing and Washington equally untrustworthy. This means that the preservation of autonomy remains the final objective.
By remaining neutral, ASEAN was able to leverage both China’s massive economic output and the US security network while remaining equidistant from both.
Effective deterrence against China is still needed, but the perceived degree of need varies widely among ASEAN members. Differences in perception of China and the mechanisms that target it – such as the Quad and AUKUS – cannot be fully accommodated by consensus, so the Outlook omits them and instead focuses on more palatable areas. where everyone can agree.
These recent developments show the merits of the Outlook in maintaining agency and ASEAN’s role as a regional commodity. It remains a platform that external powers cannot circumvent to secure their interests.
But if the outlook has taken a positive direction, member states should also invest in extra-ASEAN options to strengthen their self-reliance. Given its limitations, the Outlook is best measured by ASEAN’s ability to foster inclusiveness, build trust and maximize the agency of its members. Investing in other bilateral or mini-lateral relationships is equally crucial to achieving more strategic results.
*About the author: Arrizal Jaknanihan is an assistant lecturer in the Department of International Relations at Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia. Some of the material referenced in this article was gleaned from interviews conducted during his research at the Center for Policy Research, Indonesia’s National Agency for Research and Innovation.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum