Expanding ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific role

Asia World

Author: Prapat Thepchatree, Thammasat University

The 34th ASEAN summit in Bangkok last June took place in a global economic environment that is in a state of uncertainty. While the summit identified some key issues of reform and made progress on its Indo-Pacific policy, ASEAN needs to take bolder action to promote regional cooperation and integration.

ASEAN leaders shake hands on stage during the opening ceremony of the 34th ASEAN Summit at the Athenee Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, 23 June 2019.(Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha)

ASEAN leaders shake hands on stage during the opening ceremony of the 34th ASEAN Summit at the Athenee Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, 23 June 2019.(Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha)

ASEAN is concerned about the rising trend of protectionism and anti-globalisation that is threatening the global economy and trading system. ASEAN is determined to protect the global free trade system and support reform of the World Trade Organization (WTO). It is imperative for ASEAN to push for the conclusion of the ASEAN+6 Free Trade Area agreement or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) within 2019. RCEP will stimulate trade in the region and promote ASEAN as the centre of regional economic architecture.

The summit highlighted progress in developing ASEAN infrastructure projects and emphasised the importance of promoting the integration of these infrastructure projects with other countries’ projects under the slogan ‘connecting the connectivities’. The summit also drew attention to the importance of preparing ASEAN for the Fourth Industrial Revolution through proposals such as the Digital Integration Framework Action Plan, the Innovation Roadmap and the Declaration on Industrial Transformation to Industry 4.0.

The document ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ was issued to formally announce ASEAN’s position on the Indo-Pacific concept. Due to its geographical location in the middle of the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, ASEAN believes that it should play a leading role in the evolution of regional architecture and in promoting cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. ASEAN mechanisms, such as the East Asia summit (EAS), should be the main forums for discussion on Indo-Pacific cooperation. There are a number of areas of potential cooperation but the two most important areas are maritime security and connectivity.

The summit succeeded in attempting to move ASEAN forward and intensify ASEAN cooperation in all dimensions including political, security, economic and socio-cultural cooperation. But the summit failed to address controversial and sensitive issues, particularly the South China Sea and the Rohingya refugee crisis. ASEAN tends to adopt a gradual and non-confrontational approach. This creates a trade-off between sticking to a principle of non-interference and the cost of inefficiency and human suffering in managing key issues.

On the South China Sea issue, negotiation on the Code of Conduct is progressing very slowly and China might be attempting to delay the process. And on the Rohingya issue, ASEAN tries to avoid criticising the Myanmar government for allowing serious human rights violations to continue. The only action that ASEAN could take at the summit was to offer humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya people.

While the summit drew attention to the problem of global protectionism and also pushed for WTO reform, ASEAN needs to do a lot more to stem the protectionist tide and to respond to the global trade war. ASEAN should come up with a plan of action for deeper economic integration among ASEAN countries. This should promote intra-ASEAN trade and intra-ASEAN investment and make ASEAN less dependent on Western and Chinese markets and capitals.

Although the summit issued the Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, ASEAN needs to further develop its strategy concerning relations with the big powers. The objective of ‘ASEAN centrality’ has been mentioned for a number of years without any concrete measures. ASEAN is not succeeding in controlling the game of ASEAN’s relations with the big powers under the framework of ASEAN+1, ASEAN+3 and the ASEAN+8 or the EAS. ASEAN still struggles to find a common position and could not speak cohesively on several issues concerning ASEAN and the big powers.

The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific is the first step in promoting ‘ASEAN centrality’ but the document lays out general principles with no details on concrete measures for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. The next step for ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific strategy should be focussing on regional connectivity.

There are several major infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific. ASEAN has the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC), China has the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), while Japan, India and the United States are also starting to develop their own regional infrastructure projects to compete with China.

It is within this context that ASEAN should propose the formulation of the Master Plan on Indo-Pacific Connectivity (MPIC) — an extension of the MPAC. ASEAN should stress that it is necessary to integrate these different infrastructure projects in order to promote complementarity, synergy and avoidance of overlap and competition in the region.

Prapat Thepchatree is Professor of International Affairs at the Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University, and President of the American Studies Association in Thailand. He was formerly Director of the Center for ASEAN Studies, Thammasat University.

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