Assessing ASEAN's New Maritime Outlook
Intensified major power competition accelerates urgency for the grouping to adjust its comprehensive approach to a critical domain.
Welcome to this edition of the weekly ASEAN Wonk BulletBrief! For this iteration, we are looking at:
Assessing the implications of ASEAN’s first-ever, newly-released ASEAN Maritime Outlook for a range of maritime issues from the South China Sea to illegal fishing;
Mapping of regional developments including the reopening of EU-Philippines free trade talks and new announcements by Myanmar’s ruling junta;
Charting evolving trends including on US-China competition in Southeast Asia;
Tracking and analysis of industry developments related to China-Thailand electric vehicle links; Malaysia’s new energy plans & more;
And much more! ICYMI, check out our review of Singapore’s ex-top diplomat Bilahari Kausikan’s new book if you are interested in geopolitical trends and Singapore’s (and Southeast Asia’s) evolving foreign policy approach.
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Word Count: 1,976 words (~9 minutes reading time).
New EU-Philippines Free Trade Talks; Vietnam’s Big Anti-Corrupion Trial in the International Spotlight; New Malaysia-Brunei Pact & More
Assessing ASEAN’s New Maritime Outlook
While the recent adoption of ASEAN’s new maritime outlook signals the grouping’s understanding of the need for adjusting its comprehensive approach in this domain in the context of rising geopolitical competition, it also belies the significant practical challenges that lie ahead in how the grouping translates institutional and conceptual changes into tangible outcomes and actions.
What’s Behind It
ASEAN countries launched the inaugural edition of the ASEAN Maritime Outlook (AMO) on August 1. AMO was launched at the 13th ASEAN Maritime Forum in Bali, Indonesia amid a series of activities tied to the ASEAN Senior Officials' Meeting (SOM) held from July 31 to August 51.
While the logic of a more cohesive ASEAN maritime outlook has grown more urgent with the intensification of major power competition, the actualization of the AMO is the product of months of work by member states led by Indonesia as this year’s ASEAN chair. More forward-leaning ASEAN states have recognized over the past few years that the combination of the external challenge of rising great power competition and the internal challenge of differentiated stakes within ASEAN to various degrees on a dizzying array of maritime-related areas — from the South China Sea to illegal fishing to plastic waste management — call for a range of steps including adjustments to how it deals with maritime issues, with a diverse array of institutions currently with overlapping responsibilities. In 2022, Indonesia, which is usually among the more diplomatically active ASEAN countries in this space, formally began signaling that it would make an AMO a focus during its ASEAN chairmanship in 20232.
Why It Matters
AMO identifies ASEAN’s external and internal challenges in the maritime domain and suggests some recommendations. The AMO addresses some of these key challenges directly, including clarifying the lead sectoral body on maritime cooperation to get past silos that can occur in ASEAN’s three-pillared community system3. It also acknowledges that this will be an ongoing process worthy of institutionalization, with a goal of publishing an AMO every three years4. On opportunities, the AMO tries to reframe the narrow focus in the maritime domain on geopolitical dynamics like ASEAN’s South China Sea divisions and U.S.-China competition to a more comprehensive view of security. For instance, the report highlights the example of marine plastic debris as a case of “synergistic benefits” of trilateral cooperation between ASEAN member states, ASEAN Secretariat and external partners, with leading roles by Indonesia and Thailand and support from others like Germany, Japan and the World Bank (see table below on select areas and actions mentioned in the AMO).
Select Maritime Domain Issues Mentioned in the AMO
The AMO’s issuance also marks the completion of another key maritime-related deliverable during Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship. Indonesia has historically played an important role in ASEAN’s development — including the political-security community and earlier iterations of South China Sea talks — and Jakarta’s role with respect to the AMO should also be seen in that light, as ASEAN goes through other wider exercises including releasing its post-2025 vision. In her remarks to the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi noted the importance of the maritime domain to Indonesia’s overall chairmanship slogan of “Epicentrum of Growth,” noting that the maritime realm is among the significant areas where ASEAN will need to prevent Southeast Asia from becoming an “Epicentrum of Conflict” by promoting a “sea of peace” and a “sea of cooperation.”5 As observed previously in these pages, Indonesia had signaled several maritime-related priorities that it would seek to advance this year which have been in the spotlight, including ASEAN-China guidelines to accelerate negotiations for the code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, the holding of an ASEAN maritime exercise after some additional internal alignment as well as the fleshing out of the initial ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) which had included maritime cooperation as a pillar.
Where It’s Headed
Looking ahead, the focus will be on the follow through on some of the issues mentioned in the inaugural AMO amid wider trends and developments. ASEAN does not lack in process or programs — the fact that the two annexes covering ASEAN moves and efforts with external partners to date make up over 40 percent of the AMO’s 77 pages is testament to this fact. But the AMO also directly notes that even if there is a lead sectoral body on maritime cooperation, there will need to be greater specificity on how groupings like the ASEAN Maritime Forum fit into this process if better coordination is to be realized. Looking further ahead, while publishing an AMO every three years does account for the reality of relatively differentiated stakes on maritime issues between individual ASEAN states and leadership by a few countries like Indonesia, this will need to go through a few cycles of annually-rotating chairmanships before it is considered truly institutionalized.
Select ASEAN Maritime-Related Mechanisms Mentioned in the AMO
Ultimately, though institutional, procedural and conceptual inroads are not insignificant in an ASEAN context, the grouping will be judged on actual outcomes achieved and actions taken in the maritime domain. Internally, even the basic tasks that Marsudi outlined in her EAMF of “building a habit of cooperation” and synergizing a comprehensive approach to maritime cooperation and governance in the Indo-Pacific will not be easy given factors such as the diversity of governing systems of Southeast Asian countries, their varied stakes and even some differences among them across issues like climate change, IUU fishing and transnational organized crimes. Externally, calibrating engagements with dialogue partners in an environment of heightened geopolical competition will also be far from an easy task, down to even managing what can be construed as “ASEAN Plus One” and “ASEAN Minus X” exercise requests now that the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided6. While defining the maritime domain comprehensively, rather than from the narrow prism of great power competition, rightly reflects the complex realities that Southeast Asian states face, the failure to confront hard geopolitical challenges risks making these other issues more rather than less difficult to confront.
US-China Competition and Southeast Asia; Urban Insurgency in Myanmar; The Significance of Malaysia-Singapore Economic Ties
“China has made inroads in the press, pushing pro-Beijing lines, and the Chinese are making investments in Southeast Asian media…Southeast Asians are bombarded, and it creates a sense of confusion about what the U.S. is doing,” reads one of a series of Southeast Asian perspectives featured in a new task force report on U.S.-China policy by Asia Society, University of California-San Diego and George Washington University. The report delves into some of the dynamics of U.S.-China competition in Southeast Asia including Beijing’s inroads (see, for example, a table below from the report on the array of mechanisms China has with ASEAN, albeit with the caveat that quantity ought not to be confused with quality). For those looking for a case study of China’s influence on media environments in Southeast Asia, see this long read recently published by The Washington Post focused on Singapore, which has drawn responses including from Singapore’s ambassador to the United States who was previously the country’s envoy to Beijing (link).
Select List of ASEAN-China Engagement Mechanisms
“How much has Myanmar entered an age of urban insurgency, unparalleled in its long history of civil war?” asks a new article in Myanmar Now. The piece mentions some key trends and developments and also raises complexities in how to answer that question, including an incomplete picture of resistance activities, the challenge of measuring influence and distinguishing between the political and the criminal (link).
“With COVID-19 essentially behind us, Singapore – Malaysia economic ties are returning to their natural state. The proximity, trust and compatible economic frameworks make the partnership between the two countries very fruitful,” notes a new report published by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. The report dives into more granular aspects of economic ties, including the role of leadership, how the trade composition of both sides is tied to regional production networks in areas like electrical and electronic goods, and how China’s growing regional presence has affected the economies of both sides (link).