Watch out for Asean's new Indo-Pacific

Watch out for Asean's new Indo-Pacific

A first-ever meeting is planned for December, 2019. The essence of the Indo-Pacific, whatever its name, is to promote peace, stability, cooperation and prosperity.
A first-ever meeting is planned for December, 2019. The essence of the Indo-Pacific, whatever its name, is to promote peace, stability, cooperation and prosperity.

If everything goes as planned, members of the United Nations Security Council will have a rendezvous in Bangkok at the end of 2019. Asean leaders will use the occasion to display to the world's most powerful players their collective leadership on the new vision of an Asia-wide region stretching from South Asia to Northeast Asia. Even though it is still nearly a year away, preparations for the first meeting between Asean leaders and the Big 5 (the council's five permanent members) have already started in earnest.

During his visits to the UK and France in June, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha invited Prime Minister Theresa May and President Emmanuel Macron to meet with him and his colleagues, as the Asean chair's guests, at the 35th Asean summit next November. Both have confirmed their attendance. In addition, last week in Berlin, Gen Prayut also invited German Chancellor Angela Merkel to join the UNSC heavyweights for the extraordinary meeting in Bangkok.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

With such an ambitious plan, the Thai chair needs to create a domestic and regional environment conducive to such an undertaking, especially on the emerging regional security architecture. Given the current international volatility and tension, nobody can predict what the global situation will be like in the next 12 months. As far as the region is concerned, the state of US-China relations, the situation on the Korean Peninsula and Asean's expansion of cooperation with European powers will serve as a weather vane. Thailand has to prepare for whatever scenario might prevail.

At the 33rd Asean summit in Singapore last month, the bloc's leaders discussed the Indo-Pacific concept broached by the US, Japan, India and Australia and decided to come up with their own. The chairman's statement was succinct, stating that Asean will "explore mutually beneficial cooperation and create synergies with these initiatives". All these efforts must be carried out on "the basis of Asean centrality, particularly with a view toward promoting peace, stability, as well as deepening trade and investment connectivity in our region".

Asean leaders have already endorsed five broad principles recommended by Indonesia, comprising openness, transparency, inclusivity, a rules-based approach and Asean centrality, which would form the crux of the Asean approach to the Indo-Pacific. Thailand added that all principles and endeavours must enhance the so-called three Ms -- mutual trust, mutual respect and mutual benefit -- as the foundation of cooperation in the region.

Under these guidelines, Jakarta and Bangkok are now working with Asean colleagues to pool their input. Over the past year, senior Asean officials have discussed all the Indo-Pacific concepts. Each has its own unique and shared approaches, reflecting the strategic concerns and hopes of the major powers. As the first Asean member to raise a similar concept in 2013, Indonesia has been tasked by Asean to finalise the Asean concept paper on the Indo-Pacific.

In private, Asean diplomats have alerted dialogue partners that the Asean framework will be different from the US-inspired strategy despite some overlapping on key principles. It will be inclusive and not aimed at any particular power. It will also come with practical measures and action plans to augment peace and prosperity in the region.

At the upcoming retreat in Chiang Mai on Jan 18-19, Asean foreign ministers will have the opportunity to exchange and fine-tune their common vision and substance of the Indo-Pacific framework. It is an open secret that Asean would like to come up with a new name, replacing the name of "Free and Open Indo-Pacific", which has caused confusion among regional diplomats. Asean is also mindful that China has expressed concern about the US-inspired term.

In retrospect, Asean has made much progress over the past six months when the initiatives were formally discussed. The outgoing chair, Singapore, could not do much, as the grouping still did not have a consensus. Thanks to Indonesia's push and persuasion, all Asean members are actively engaged in formulating the grouping's own regional architecture.

For the record, in the beginning, there were many hurdles. The Philippines and Cambodia were the most reluctant to discuss the initiative within the Asean framework, while Laos, Brunei and Myanmar were silent. But Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia were supportive of the initiative. The recalcitrance of the former two derived from concerns that it could dilute Asean centrality and put the group in harm's way. However, their attitudes began to change as more information became available.

After they heard US Vice President Mike Pence's strong presentation on the Indo-Pacific at the Singapore summit, Asean began to view the concept as a new window to demonstrate its strategic vision in safeguarding regional peace and prosperity. In a nutshell, Asean can stay away and face whatever consequences or it can strengthen the grouping's centrality by staying in the Indo-Pacific loop.

After several meetings among senior Asean officials in Jakarta, New York and Singapore, they expressed confidence that Asean can synergise elements of Washington, Tokyo and India's concepts with Asean-led projects concerning infrastructure development, governance and maritime cooperation. For instance, Asean can utilise existing various naval platforms, such as the Asean Maritime Forum and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, among others. For the time being, there is a strong consensus that the East Asia Summit is the right platform to discuss the Indo-Pacific.

Since 2005, the EAS has been the only venue for Asean leaders to discuss strategic matters with their colleagues from the US, China, Russia, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. In its 13 years of existence, the EAS has transformed into a confidence-building mechanism for Asean with its powerful dialogue partners. Indonesia has also suggested highlighting three priorities for Asean and its dialogue partners in future summits -- maritime cooperation, enhancing regional connectivity and advancing sustainable development goals in both the Asean and UN contexts.

In Singapore last month, Asean upgraded Russia and the EU to its 8th and 9th strategic partners as part of its intensified engagement. The essence of the Indo-Pacific, whatever its name, is to promote peace, stability, cooperation and prosperity.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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