Asean lukewarm, members fear compromised neutrality

For now, Asean does not see agreement between the US, Australia, India and Japan on the character of the Indo-Pacific concept.
For now, Asean does not see agreement between the US, Australia, India and Japan on the character of the Indo-Pacific concept. PHOTO: ST FILE

When the United States came knocking on Asean's door and asked for a minute, Asean opened it and politely listened to Washington's sales pitch on a free and open Indo-Pacific - but has not embraced the strategic vision with enthusiasm.

The key reason behind the lukewarm reception is that the Indo-Pacific sounds like it targets a rising China, and Asean does not want to be forced to choose sides, say regional watchers.

For Asean, the grouping fears a weakening of the glue of neutrality that holds it together.

Former Asean secretary-general Ong Keng Yong says the Indo-Pacific concept has been articulated in recent times as though it is a response to the rise of China and its assertive diplomacy, particularly over the South China Sea disputes and the Belt and Road Initiative.

"Consequently, Asean member states which have close ties with China do not feel comfortable to commit as they see Asean neutrality being compromised," he adds.

ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute researcher Termsak Chalermpalanupap says: "We in Asean don't want two superpowers to fight another proxy war in our region, the way they did during the Vietnam War."

Asean's ambivalence is not out of character, says Associate Professor Alan Chong of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.


"Asean is reprising its strategic role of standing in the middle. It can't be helped. That's the best way to play the diplomatic strategy when you have great powers contending against one another," he adds.

For instance, Asean is in favour of the US freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea but cannot say so openly, because it wants China to be a good neighbour and ultimately successfully conclude the Code of Conduct being negotiated with China, says Prof Chong.

"Asean might bend slightly in an opposite direction when one power is going too far, but will never shift too far into one camp."


Indonesia, meanwhile, has seized the chance to lead the crafting of an Asean position on the free and open Indo-Pacific.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, in her annual foreign policy speech this January, emphasised an Indo-Pacific strategy that maintains Asean centrality and advances cooperation in the region.

Indonesia is committed to a policy of non-alignment, and the Asean region as open and inclusive, where major powers ceded to Asean a certain degree of influence and power without undermining their respective strategic interests, says Mr Ong.

"In my view, Indonesia sees the current Indo-Pacific concept as potentially pulling Asean away from a neutral stance that would eventually harm Asean centrality."

Indonesia is also aware that Asean was an afterthought in the original conception of the Indo-Pacific and does not want to be overlooked.

Says Mr Ong: "Indonesian contacts have often told me that original Japanese articulation of the Indo-Pacific concept did not include Asean. There was only Japan, USA, India and Australia... it was only subsequently that Japan mentioned Asean."

The good news for Asean is that the Indo-Pacific's champions have evidently heard these worries about Asean being displaced or forced to pick sides, and sought to allay them.

In recent speeches, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly stated that America remains committed to Asean centrality under the Indo-Pacific strategy and is not interested in excluding any one country.

"Asean is literally at the centre of the Indo-Pacific, and it plays a central role in the Indo-Pacific vision that America is presenting," he said at a business forum on the Indo-Pacific last month.

Likewise, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told Asean leaders at a ministerial meet earlier this month: "Asean sits at the heart of the Indo-Pacific... Its centrality to the region's architecture is uncontested."

Another reason why Asean and its members are reluctant to support the free and open Indo-Pacific is its ideological basis, says Dr Termsak, who was with the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta from 1993 to 2012.

Mr Pompeo, at the business forum last month, said a "free" Indo-Pacific at the national level meant good governance and "the assurance that citizens can enjoy their fundamental rights and liberties".

A few days later, at a press conference on the sidelines of the recent Asean-related meetings in Singapore, Mr Pompeo even singled out Cambodia for reproach, saying: "We regret the elections in Cambodia were neither free nor fair. The Cambodian people deserve better."

This does not sit well with Asean, Dr Termsak notes: "At least half of Asean's members are not so comfortable about 'individual rights'."

In any case, even if Asean is at the centre of the strategy, it is unlikely to be the driving architect of it.

Even though Asean support is necessary, "the Indo-Pacific is too far away for Asean to have any real say", says Dr Termsak.

For now, Asean does not see agreement between the US, Australia, India and Japan on the character of the Indo-Pacific concept.

Says Mr Ong: "Therefore, the Asean basic approach is to characterise the concept as an externally driven idea which may not benefit Asean."

Charissa Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 12, 2018, with the headline 'Asean lukewarm, members fear compromised neutrality'. Subscribe