Asean Indo-Pacific guide still impractical, but not a lost cause: experts

It is believed that it could take Asean at least five years to finalise its concrete plan of action.

Yvette Tanama

Yvette Tanama

The Jakarta Post


Philippines' President Ferdinand Marcos Jr (left), Thailand’s Prayut Chan-O-Cha (third left), Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh (fourth left), Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah (fifth left), Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni (fifth right), Prime Minister Hun Sen (fouth right), Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (third right), Laos' Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh (second right) and Malaysia's lower house speaker Azhar Azizan Harun (right) walk during a courtesy call to Cambodia's king before the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh on Nov. 10. (AFP/Kenn Sovanarra)

December 12, 2022

JAKARTA – Operationalization remained ASEAN’s biggest challenge in actualizing its Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), experts from across the region have said as hope prevails that the 10-nations group could actualize the much-needed document.

Deliberating possible solutions at the 13th General Conference of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, panelists suggested that some tweaks to the document may prove useful to overcome the profound challenges if ASEAN wishes to actualize its vision.

“The [AOIP] requires a set of concrete, actionable plans of action. Something that we have not yet seen so far. Leaders should ask the ASEAN coordinating council to explore the development of an ASEAN road map for promoting an open Indo-Pacific,” Rizal Sukma, a senior researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said on Friday.

The AOIP, first endorsed in 2019, is a framework to assert ASEAN’s centrality in the increasingly contested area, in which the region’s partners would cease competition and instead cooperate through the bloc’s mechanism – such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Plus forums, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM).

According to Rizal, estimates suggest that it would take at least five years until ASEAN can finalize its concrete plans of action, but that should not mean the association remains passive amid superpowers’ attempts to assert their influence in the region.

Vijay Thakur Singh, director general of the Indian Council of World Affairs, suggested that since the Indo-Pacific was an area of interest for many actors, ASEAN should take advantage by consulting with other subregional groups where closer collaboration may yield higher results.

That other actors may have their own visions for the region does not have to automatically be taken as a challenge to the AIOP, she said.

“[There is the] possibility of collaborating with other organizations in the region, where we can take advantage of the linkages that may come,” said Singh, adding that this method would also minimize any risks of future competition and power-grabbing.

Crystal D. Pryor, vice president of the Pacific Forum, suggested that ASEAN adapt parts of its dialogue partners’ vision of the region, citing examples like the Canadian Indo-Pacific Strategy – an outlook that puts higher emphasis on gender equality and women empowerment.

Rizal added that the AOIP must first gather sufficient clout among global powers before it could actualize its goals. Forums such as the EAS could be used here to tread between upkeeping ASEAN centrality and promoting inclusiveness.

While keeping an open mind to tweak parts of the document, panelists concurred that the bloc must refrain from rebuilding its AOIP from scratch for efficiency’s sake. The onus is now on Indonesia as the next ASEAN chair to do what must be done, they added.

“It will take some time before we get to where we want to be,” said Rizal.

“Can we have a coherent strategy and actionable plans of action for the implementation? It depends on the chair. Can Indonesia do it? I am sure we can. But will Indonesia do it? I have no idea.”

Experts have previously criticized Indonesia’s lack of vision to modify some parts of the AOIP, calling it one of the major reasons for the documents’ lackluster performance.

As ASEAN’s to-do list continues to expand, and as continued global instability remains a threat to all nations, CSIS cofounder Jusuf Wanandi emphasized that unproductive pessimism must be kept at bay, and having sufficient faith to continue with robust discussions ought to prevail.

“Crises and wars happening [both] within government and other parts of the world have caused tremendous impacts,” said Jusuf. “Confidence-building measures and enhancements are even more important these days […] when you are dealing with these existential threats.”

At the same event, Coordinating Economic Minister Airlangga Hartarto believed that Indonesia would not be at pains to enhance ASEAN’s mechanisms, saying that it would not take any more than about two decades until the bloc reaches its goals.

“President Joko Widodo believes that by 2035, ASEAN countries will be more adaptive, responsive and competitive as per the [group’s] global agenda,” he said.

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