After ASEAN's Summit, What's Next for its Indo-Pacific Balancing Act?
Beyond recent summit outcomes, bigger questions loom in 2024 and beyond with respect to the grouping's approach to manifold external and internal challenges.
The outcomes of the recent ASEAN summit chaired by Indonesia amid intensifying geopolitical competition highlighted the mixed progress in the grouping’s two-pronged Indo-Pacific balancing act: reinforcing ties with diverse external partners while boosting internal relevance and growth prospects1.
ASEAN Wonk is a reader-supported publication. To receive full posts and support our work, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
After ASEAN’s Summit, What’s Next for its Indo-Pacific Balancing Act?
WonkCount: 1,274 words (~6 minutes)
ASEAN has been struggling to respond to mounting internal and external challenges, and its approach to the Indo-Pacific is a subset of that story. In addition to global issues like heightened U.S.-China tensions, the Russia-Ukraine War and uncertainties around globalization, the grouping is also dealing with the ongoing Myanmar civil war, South China Sea tensions, the race for post-pandemic growth and the struggle to be more people-centered and geopolitically responsive so it is not overshadowed by minilaterals like the Quad and the proliferation of Indo-Pacific strategies. ASEAN has taken some moves in response to this, including adopting its own ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) in 2019 referencing four priorities of maritime cooperation, connectivity, sustainable development and economics2. Yet even more ardent regional multilateralists like Indonesia’s former foreign minister Marty Natalegawa have argued that this was more of a defensive and programmatic approach rather than a bold one seeking to actively confront geopolitical challenges3.
Indonesia’s 2023 ASEAN chairmanship was seen as a litmus test for Jakarta’s leadership and the grouping’s Indo-Pacific approach, which has largely been a two-pronged balancing act of reinforcing ties with diverse external partners while boosting internal relevance and growth prospects. That approach has its merits: it transcends a narrow bipolar frame to focus on Indo-Pacific partners beyond the United States and China as well as redirects the focus to one of the world’s most underappreciated growth stories for all its faults (Southeast Asia today accounts for roughly about a tenth of global growth, about twice what it ought to be for its weight4). On the other hand, the challenge for ASEAN is that efforts to respond to Indo-Pacific geopolitical rivalry with programmatic, economic-first initiatives risks reinforcing a dynamic where its convening power and growth prospects are recognized, but it is marginalized when it comes to major power interactions. This is a narrower notion of “ASEAN centrality” as defined in the ASEAN Charter as “the primary driving force” in exernal relationships and regional architecture5.
The summit saw ASEAN try to address its Indo-Pacific challenge via this aforementioned two-pronged approach of strengthening relations with diverse external partners and focusing on internal cohesion and growth (see example external partner initiatives below). On the former, the grouping inked statements with partners like China, Korea and the United States, publicized billions worth of infrastructure projects at the ASEAN Indo-Pacific Forum (to “walk the talk,” as Jokowi put it6), and welcomed new economic plans from Australia and Japan to show that the Indo-Pacific can be leveraged for inclusive cooperation to meet regional needs. On the latter, the Jakarta Declaration (or Concord IV) signaled longer-term efforts to shore up slow consensus-based decision-making processes and invest in key areas like the digital economy7. These gains were welcomed given the high stakes, as Southeast Asian leaders themselves acknowledged. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said “our collective well-being hinges upon our ability to respond…in a timely and effective manner,”8 while Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said ASEAN’s response to challenges “will determine whether ASEAN centrality can hold.”9
Notable ASEAN Summit Developments Involving Select Dialogue Partners
Despite the deep challenges that remain in ASEAN’s two-pronged approach, there were some tangible areas of progress made (see table below) that are worthy of attention for those looking for a sense of how ASEAN may look to build out priority areas in the coming months and years.