GP Insights

GP Insights # 90, 29 June 2019

ASEAN Summit: A new outlook on Indo Pacific 
Aparupa Bhattacherjee

What happened?

The 34th ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Summit was held from 20 to 23 June in Bangkok, Thailand. As per the statement realized by the ASEAN chairman, the discussion by ASEAN head of the States "emphasized the importance of advancing partnership for sustainability to achieve a people-centric, people-oriented and forward-looking ASEAN Community that leaves no one behind in the rapidly changing regional and global environment."

This year the theme was emphasizing on "advancing partnerships for sustainability". Along with many other topics discussed in the Summit, some were on tackling marine debris, technology for sustainable growth and promoting co-operation in the face of rising regional powers. However, the critical agreement reached was the 'ASEAN Outlook on the Indo Pacific' which was adopted after more than a year of negotiation.  

What is the background?

This was the 34th Summit for ASEAN a regional organization with ten members (Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos). The regional organization which was once considered one of the most successful ones had lost its charisma due to lack of involvement and discussion in case of many pertinent issues like the Rohingya conflict that have been affecting the members.  

This year's Summit took place after two important democratic elections in Indonesia and Thailand, which was also hosting the Summit. Thailand witnessed the return of Prayuth Cha-ocha in a democratically concluded election. He was the previous military leader who abolished the previous democratic government by a coup in 2014.  In Indonesia, Joko Widodo is re-elected by voters. It is important to note that it is these two countries that have proposed and taken the lead in evolving the Indo Pacific outlook for ASEAN. Indonesia proposed a distinct ASEAN Indo-Pacific approach at a foreign ministers' retreat in January 2018 and has since led the discussion. The primary push for finally concluding the 'ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific' came from Singapore's who demanded further meetings as the growing US-China trade war started affecting its economy.   

What does it mean?

Firstly, no outcome was seen on the issue of the Rohingya crisis and their repatriation to Myanmar from Bangladesh or the South China Sea issue, which was highlighted by Rodrigo Duterte. Due to lack of ASEAN's stand on the above issues, the regional organization might end up losing its significance. However, by adopting the Indo Pacific approach, the organization was seen collectively taking a stand on the trade war and the broader power politics.  

Secondly, Indonesia's keenness to push for the Indo Pacific reflects the countries' desire to evolve as a primary power from being a middle power in the geo-strategic theatre of the Indo-Pacific and the organization. This ASEAN centric vision to the Indo Pacific creates an alternative narrative taking the region away from 'bandwagoning' either behind America's 'Free and Open Indo Pacific' or China' BRI. 

Lastly, the trade war has negatively affected the economies of many ASEAN countries, as is evident with Singapore's slowing economic growth. Thus one could see China becoming the core of ASEAN's economic discussion. However, in spite of the negative growth, but some ASEAN members like Vietnam have also gained out of this trade war.

Aparupa Bhattacherjee is a PhD scholar at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS. She can be reached at aparupa.bhattacharjee@gmail.com. 

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