The Japan Forum on International Relations

July 10,2019

ASEAN Seek Opportunities In “Indo-Pacific”

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held its Summit Meeting in Bangkok, Thailand on June 23. The Meeting adopted, on its own accord, “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.” It was for the first time for ASEAN to unveil such strategic outlook encompassing a broad geographical area stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, a way beyond South China Sea where they have disputes with China. In the Outlook, it acknowledges that the “Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions are amongst the most dynamic in the world as well as centers of economic growth for decades. As a result, these regions continue to experience geopolitical and geostrategic shifts.” Based on such outlook, ASEAN declares that it needs to “continue to maintain its central role in the evolving regional architecture in Southeast Asia and its surrounding regions” as well as to “continue being an honest broker within the strategic environment of competing interests.”

What is behind of this is the US-China discord in Asia-Pacific, escalating competition of hegemony in the region particularly through trade strife. For ASEAN, both US and China are close economic partners, so taking either side is not an option. ASEAN needs to maintain some distance from US and China, while also maintaining the unity as an institution for the regional integration. Issues in the South China Sea have been prolonging due to the threats posed by China’s militarization of islets and violation of fishery zone. ASEAN member states vary geographically —for example, maritime states like Philippines and Indonesia, and continental states like Myanmar and those share border with China on Indochinese Peninsula, so they have different interests. The divide within ASEAN was deepening as 4 member states with disputes with China in South China Sea, like Vietnam and Philippines, and the China supporters, the continental members such as Cambodia and Laos, were not able to reach an agreement on the joint statement, despite some repeated attempts. But now, ASEAN is required to unite stronger as the US-China confrontation is escalating.

On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in Hague ruled out China’s argument of its sovereignty in South China Sea, while China denounced the ruling as “nothing more than a piece of wastepaper” and decided to ignore it. China kept building artificial islands by reclaiming reefs, of which they militarized and started to effectively control over by constructing a runway, a hangar, radar facility, etc. ‘Indo-Pacific Initiative’ was initiated by Prime Minister ABE Shinzo, and US President Trump followed, then not only the regional countries like India and Australia, but also those in Europe with historical ties to the region, United Kingdom and France are joining. As President Trump’s administration is enforcing the Freedom of Navigation operation in South China Sea, military tension with China is rising, along with the trade strife. It is understandable that ASEAN, the main actor of the region, concerned that it would be lost amidst of the US-China confrontation in regional security and economic cooperation. So, the Indo-Pacific Initiative gave ASEAN a step to regain its raison d’être.

The Chair’s statement of the ASEAN Summit stated that they “took note of some concerns on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.” This part was not in the original draft prepared by Thailand, the chair, but it seems Vietnam and Singapore claimed that part to be inserted. The statement also stated to “pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea]” and “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation and pursue peaceful resolution of disputes.” “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” self-claims that it “provides a guide for ASEAN’s engagement in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions” including South China Sea. Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn, a well-known journalist of Bangkok Post, noted “a stronger ASEAN will prevent the rise of a hegemonic power in the region.” That is right. To realize that, however, ASEAN is facing a challenge whether the organization could be strongly united to exert its powerful leadership so it will not vacillate if concern to China be noted on the joint statement or not, every year the chair state changes.

(This is the English translation of an article written by NABESHIMA Keizo, Critic, which originally appeared on the e-forum “Hyakka-Seiho (Hundred Flowers in Full Bloom)” of JFIR on June 28, 2019.)