Even if attempts are being made to deepen bilateral ties, the Quad countries will need to think of ways to tap into all the ASEAN countries in this Indo-Pacific rubric.
The struggle for primacy between the United States and China, reignites the “dark memories of a brutal past in Southeast Asian collective consciousness.” This is primarily the reason why Southeast Asian countries have since been wary of being drawn in the middle of such great power struggles. Many in the region see the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy as nothing more than a means to contain a rising China. For most of the ASEAN countries, China is an indispensable partner in the economic and trading realm. Even though the four main proponents of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) concept — the US, Japan, India, and Australia — strongly advocate for ‘ASEAN centrality,’ there is profound anxiety over broader implications for ASEAN and its “centrality” in shaping the regional security architecture.
The ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ also underlines, “ASEAN will continue to maintain its central role in the evolving regional architecture in Southeast Asia and its surrounding regions and serve as an honest broker within the strategic environment of competing interests.” But at a time when the viability of the ‘ASEAN centrality’ has itself come into question, given the divided stand of the ASEAN member states on critical security issues like the South China Sea, will it be probable to make ‘ASEAN centrality’ the fulcrum of the FOIP? The US, India, Japan, and Australia are all very much aware of the ground realities and the unstable state of the ‘ASEAN centrality,’ so for how long will these countries also continue to push for a central role of the ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific gambit?
In recent times, there has been a proliferation of minilaterals and plurilaterals and, therefore, Southeast Asian analysts like Richard Heydarian have suggested that, “ASEAN can more proactively adopt “minilateralism,” whereby core, likeminded Southeast Asian countries can adopt more expedient and robust responses to shared threats, including in cooperation with external powers.” It has also been pointed out by scholars like Evan Laksmana that, “in general, policymakers find minilateralism appealing because of its inherent flexibility, relatively low transaction costs, and voluntary, rather than mandatory, commitments. In the Indo-Pacific, minilateral cooperation does not negate or eliminate pre-existing multilateral commitments (like ASEAN) or bilateral alliances (with the US for example).” Long-existing trilateral initiatives like the India-Indonesia-Australia are also getting a much-needed push.
Countries like Japan, Australia, India, and US are strengthening bilateral ties with like-minded ASEAN partners like Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Newly appointed Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, in October 2020 visited Hanoi as these countries are seen as “key to Japan’s FOIP strategy.” In the ASEAN, Vietnam and Indonesia specifically have been the leading voices harping on the need to join the Indo-Pacific bandwagon and, thereby, strengthening bilateral ties with them has become the focus of the four Quad countries. Though countries like Indonesia and Vietnam have taken a stand on disputes like the South China Sea and are active proponents of the Indo-Pacific concept, ASEAN will still remain a predominant component in their foreign policy calculus. Indonesian scholars like Rizal Sukma have, at times, proposed that Indonesia needs a “post-ASEAN foreign policy” as well, but still the official stand has always been that ASEAN centrality should be upheld and ASEAN mechanisms like the East Asia Summit (EAS) should be regarded as a viable regional architecture platform for the Indo-Pacific region.
Even for Vietnam, which is currently the chair of the ASEAN, the aim has been to “safeguard ASEAN’s unity and solidarity in the face of increasing challenges and promote greater ASEAN pro-activism to defend the regional and extra-regional interests.” Therefore, even if attempts are being made to deepen bilateral ties, the Quad countries will still need to think of ways to tap into all the ASEAN countries in this Indo-Pacific rubric so that ASEAN can have a pivotal role in shaping the emerging order in the Indo-Pacific. But a lot will also ride on how the ASEAN countries can work to restore the ‘ASEAN centrality and unity’ by either amending the ‘ASEAN Way’ or thinking of “alternative and more optimal decision-making modalities.”
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Premesha Saha is a Fellow with ORF’s Strategic Studies Programme. Her research focuses on Southeast Asia, East Asia, Oceania and the emerging dynamics of the ...Read More +