ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific Balancing Act in the Spotlight with Summit Outcomes
Plus India-ASEAN connectivity; countering China gray zone coercion; IPEF and supply chains and more.
Welcome back to ASEAN Wonk BulletBrief! This week we’re looking at ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific balancing act on display at the recent round of summitry in Indonesia; a development in India-ASEAN connectivity; supply chain cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) with the recent round of negotiations in Singapore, and much more.
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This week’s WonkCount: 2,715 words (~13 minutes reading time)
ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific Balancing Act in the Spotlight at Summit
Key outcomes of the recent ASEAN summit spotlighted what can be characterized as the grouping’s ongoing Indo-Pacific balancing act: with efforts to both maintain ASEAN’s relevance by shaping its own Indo-Pacific outlook in a more contested geopolitical environment, while also making this Indo-Pacific conception more relevant for the needs of a region pursuing growth amid uncertainty and managing manifold internal and external challenges.
What’s Behind It
The ASEAN summit chairman’s statement saw a focus on ongoing efforts to align and concretize the Indo-Pacific conception around the region’s realities, including the pursuit of post-pandemic economic growth. The statement kept alive ideas that Indonesia and more forward-leaning members have been supporting with respect to ASEAN’s approach to the Indo-Pacific, including developing a defense concept paper on the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) adopted back in 2019; convening an Indo-Pacific Forum that will focus on items such as the creative economy; and deepening the AOIP’s sectoral focus around four pre-agreed areas: maritime cooperation, connectivity; UN Sustainable Development Goals and economic and other possible areas of cooperation. ASEAN leaders also adopted declarations on cross-border economic issues that are key to growth like payment connectivity and an electric vehicle ecosystem.
The statement reinforces ASEAN’s balancing act in both managing strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific while also promoting economic growth amid a shifting geoeconomic environment. ASEAN as a bloc has been struggling to react to the proliferation of Indo-Pacific strategies (see graphic below, published before the release of additional outlooks over the past year from additional countries such as Bangladesh, Canada and South Korea) in the context of intensifying major power competition, as well as the dizzying array of initiatives pursued by diverse countries within the bloc in search of post-pandemic growth in areas like the digital economy and supply chains. Part of the bloc’s response has been to try to concretize AOIP around inclusive functional issues relevant to the region such as infrastructure, while also regionalizing certain economic workstreams even as countries pursue their own national journeys.
Why It Matters
ASEAN’s approach to the Indo-Pacific is a subset of wider anxieties within parts of the region around the bloc’s relevance and centrality in the face of mounting internal and external challenges including the ongoing Myanmar civil war; sharpening U.S.-China competition; Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and uncertainties around globalization and the international rules-based order. Ahead of the summit, Indonesia’s former Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who had advocated for a more proactive approach for ASEAN in shaping the Indo-Pacific conception around what he had termed a “dynamic equilibrium” in the early 2010s, warned that the grouping “faces a possible future of diminishing relevance” without “a renewed and reinvigorated effort” to “show its mettle.” Multiple years of surveys by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore have also indicated discontent even among ASEAN elites about the bloc (see an example from the latest report below).
Indonesia’s chairmanship year in 2023 is seen as a key year for ASEAN to navigate these geoeconomic and geopolitical challenges. Indonesia’s leadership has previously been an important variable in key advancements within ASEAN, including the kickstarting of the Political-Security Community and the evolution of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the world’s largest free trade agreement which entered into force last year. Though Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo himself has been less focused on foreign policy relative to his predecessor, Jakarta has nonetheless been playing a leading role on select issues such as the adoption of the initial AOIP and diplomacy on Myanmar. In an editorial published following the ASEAN Summit, The Jakarta Post acknowledged Indonesia’s leadership in promoting ASEAN as an "Epicentrum of Growth” and shaping the grouping’s longer-term outlook out to 2045, but noted that in another sign of ASEAN’s wider challenges as a grouping, “the two-day summit largely avoided addressing tough questions in favor of quick wins.”
Where It’s Headed
With this round of deliberations concluded, the focus will shift to the next ASEAN summit expected in September, which will reveal more about how ASEAN is navigating its Indo-Pacific balancing act. Of particular note will be tangible progress on efforts to sectoralize of the AOIP into specific areas through mechanisms like the Indo-Pacific Forum, and the extent to which notable initiatives like secretariat-to-secretariat cooperation between ASEAN and the Pacific Islands Forum and the Indian Ocean Rim Association translate into substantive outcomes beyond any performative value. ASEAN’s efforts will also be evaluated within the context of a more globalized Indo-Pacific conversation: to take just one example, we just witnessed the holding of the latest EU Indo-Pacific ministerial forum in Sweden as part of its holding of the presidency of the Council of the European Union, with Indonesia participating. The Indo-Pacific will also be in focus in upcoming non-ASEAN engagements like the G7 Summit in Japan and the Quad Summit in Australia, which have significance for the grouping’s place within the wider regional and global institutional architecture.
The second half of the year will also provide more indications of how the ASEAN agenda will shape up heading into 2024. Following ASEAN’s alphabetical ordering of its annually rotating chairmanship, Laos is set to take up the ASEAN chair in 2024, and there will be a gradual handing over of the chairmanship and shaping of Vientiane’s own priorities through to the end of the year. Though Laos may not have the weight of Indonesia and often appears in the headlines for its dependence on China or debt levels, it is active in certain areas of broader regional economic relevance such as cross-border energy trading and payments, and has relevance for several issues in focus during the summit like addressing the vast network of scams across Southeast Asia (see a select list of ASEAN Summit outcomes below).
IPEF and Critical Minerals Supply Chains; Managing China Gray Zone Aggression; Supply Chains Indo-Pacific; The Data Transparency Power Challenge
“While sector-wide supply chain work is critical, IPEF should not stop there [and] sector-specific work…should also be pursued…the critical minerals and materials sector makes the most sense as the first candidate, given its economic and geopolitical importance, coupled with its current high levels of concentration, with the corresponding urgency for diversification,” notes a new report released amid the latest round of IPEF talks in Singapore by the Asia Society Policy Institute. The issue of critical minerals has implications for several key Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam (see the above graphic for more country specifics). The full report is available here.
“Providing physical capabilities to push back against China’s maritime coercion is necessary. But simply gifting equipment to partners will be insufficient if not accompanied by efforts to bolster key intangible factors such as national political will and interagency cooperation,” notes a piece over at Proceedings magazine published by the U.S. Naval Institute on how Southeast Asian countries can help confront gray zone coercion by Beijing with help from allies and partners. You can read the full piece here.
“Findings from this research revealed that more than half of the region has poor to insufficient data transparency, representing electricity needs of 684 million people,” notes a new report on the state of data transparency for power sector decarbonization in Asia by Ember and Subak. Several of the countries within this bucket are in Southeast Asia (see the graphic below). The complete report is available here.