Asean leaders’ summit: News analysis

Asean tiptoes around contentious issues

China's increasingly tense face-off with the United States, which risks sidelining Asean, gave rise to the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, a document that lays out its 10 member nations' common position on regional cooperation, security and prosperity.

It marks the first attempt by Asean to articulate a joint perspective of a contested discourse. But, with much of the material culled from previous Asean announcements, there are few substantive statements, said analysts.

The five-page document released yesterday broadly outlines Asean's vision to improve connectivity, hastens maritime cooperation and guides development by following long-espoused principles like rule of law and renunciation of the threat or use of force.

It mentions neither the US nor China by name, and tiptoes around the contentious South China Sea dispute by referring to "unresolved maritime disputes" and "unsustainable exploitation of maritime resources and maritime pollution". Asean's vision is fundamentally different from Washington's Indo-Pacific Strategy, noted Mr Aaron Connelly, a fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"The US Indo-Pacific Strategy report that came out on June 1 very clearly identifies the problem as Chinese actions, particularly Chinese coercion of South-east Asian countries. This (Asean) document appears to regard the problem... as US-China rivalry," he told The Straits Times.

Work on Asean's framework was initiated last year, at around the same time the US was drumming up support for its Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative.

Viewed by some as an extension of the longstanding American policy, the US vision involves roping in allies across the Indian and Pacific oceans to maintain a rules-based international order, as well as mobilising both private and public funding to develop regional infrastructure.

 
 
 
 
 

Also rapidly gaining traction in the region is China's Belt and Road Initiative, which links economies from as far as Africa and Europe through projects that also serve as a conduit for Beijing's influence.

The competing big-power visions put Asean - which makes decisions by consensus - at a crossroads. "Asean has to contemplate its future as a South-east Asian-centric entity in response to pressures towards a wider and more inclusive form of regionalism," said Dr Tang Siew Mun, head of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute's Asean Studies Centre.

"Fundamentally, the (other) Indo-Pacific proposals stem from the view that Asean is indifferent or incapable of responding to new strategic developments, and Asean has to come up with a credible response beyond issuing an outlook," added Dr Tang.

As a vision statement, the Asean Outlook does not address the fundamental problems, argued Mr Connelly.

"Instead of dealing with the strategic rivalry that has emerged, it... basically wishes it away."

Individual Asean countries, he said, have already crafted divergent strategies for managing the US-China rivalry. "Nothing in this (Asean Outlook) is likely to change that or to bridge those divergent strategies," he added.

On the one hand, any new regional architecture would find it hard to succeed without involving Asean, said analysts. On the other, Asean will further lose credibility if it cannot turn vision to action.

"After decades of singing the tune of (Asean) centrality, it now falls on Asean to defend this assertion," said Dr Tang.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2019, with the headline 'Asean tiptoes around contentious issues'. Print Edition | Subscribe