In 2017, the concept of the Indo-Pacific, after it was included in the discourse of regional issues by US representatives, was unofficially framed as the region’s main discussion issue for the coming years. Having appeared in the Indian analytical magazine in 2007, the term “Indo-Pacific” for a long time only remained the subject of scientific discussions and entered the political vocabulary of only a couple of countries of the future region: India, Japan and Australia. At the initial stage of the emergence of the concept, ASEAN countries experienced serious problems of internal contradictions and really could not join the formation of the concept among the first. In 2013, Indonesia, as a country – one of the leaders in the region, presented an “aseanocentric” vision of the concept of “Indo-Pacific.” The proposal was to create a regional organization that includes all the basic principles of ASEAN (“integration”, “mutual understanding”), based on a symbiosis of two existing institutions: the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in Southeast Asia and the Association of East Asian Summit Members. It is not surprising that the proposed construct retained the leading role for ASEAN countries in future decisions of the organization, since it was actually proposed to “bring to a common denominator the heterogeneous and diverse ASEAN external partners» . At the stage of presentation, the path of the “aseanocentric” concept stopped. The main ideas, agendas presented by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Indonesia, Marty Metalegawa, were not included in the discourse-discussion of the concept in the coming years.
If we give an analytical assessment of the approach proposed by Indonesia, on behalf of ASEAN, we can note its all-inclusive nature, where there were no restrictions on the entry of actors (the most striking example is the dualism of the China-USA pair), which at the time of the promotion of the initiative, which of course was perceived by most countries as anti-Chinese, the idea of forming a future concept fell somewhat out of the general trend of the movement of thought. Considering that in the years following the presentation of the concept by Indonesia, the confrontation between the USA and China only increased, it is not surprising that the «aseanocentric» version of Indo-Pacific seemed inappropriate to potential participants in the future concept. At the same time, the lack of economic opportunities for ASEAN countries to advance the initiative was superimposed on this.
Difficulties in embedding discourse
It is obvious that after the rejection of the “aseanocentric” initiative, the ASEAN countries found themselves in a dependent position on the will of other participants in the dialogue on the formation of a future concept. The absence of the agenda of the Southeast Asian countries in the formation of the future Indo-Pacific concept on the following provisions, which will negatively affect the position of ASEAN countries in the creation of Indo-Pacific.
As early as 2017, ASEAN countries were turned off from a direct discussion of the concept of “Indo-Pacific.” So during the four-way dialogue on the security of the region, among whose participants were the USA, Japan, Australia, India, not a single Southeast Asian country was invited. The lines on the application of the principle of “ASEAN centrality” in shaping the future concept in the final communiqué following the discussion looked all the more ironic . The very format of the meeting, where in the presence of a significant number of regional, time-tested institutions, including ASEAN, this institution was chosen as the venue for the meeting (the four-way dialogue on security cannot be considered one of the main regional venues in the region), which did not include Southeast Asian countries, ASEAN’s potential reduced role in Indo-Pacific.
However, when discussing the non-inclusion of ASEAN countries in the process of adopting the concept of future Indo-Pacific, it is worthwhile to dwell in detail on the chronic internal problems of the organization, especially with regard to the process of developing a unified, consolidated position on any issue. The decision-making problem has already led to the “informality” being proclaimed as the main principle of ASEAN organization, since there are few official situations where the parties could agree on problematic issues (from unsuccessful examples: ASEAN position on SCS, standardization of tariff restrictions) . As part of the ASEAN internal affairs, this lack of maturity is explained not only by the system of consensus decision-making established in the organization (when one abstaining is enough for the decision not to be made), but also by the constant desire for political diversification of previous agreements (example: despite the fact that ASEAN has been a long time trying to build a common market, most of the organization’s states are openly oriented to third markets, which diverges from official political statements and blocks promotion proposed “aseanocentric” initiatives) .
A very sensitive internal moment for the ASEAN countries in building the concept of Indo-Pacific is the orientation of the initiating countries to the principles of “freedom” and “democracy” in internal political life, which share the concept of countries. This is a very well-founded fear, since most of the ASEAN countries can be classified as hybrid regimes that combine the practice of democracy and authoritarianism. ASEAN countries that are historically sensitive (“postcolonial syndrome”) to any attempt to influence sovereignty (which at one time even made them completely abandon the idea of creating supranational political institutions) are absolutely reasonably alarmed by the potential changes in the internal political structure that the design of the Indo-Pacific concept can bring.
The main foreign policy concern of the ASEAN countries, in connection with their participation in the development of the Indo-Pacific concept, is the potential possibility of losing China, which is the region’s main economic partner. In the presentation of the main initiators of the USA and Australia, carries a clear anti-Chinese message, which automatically puts all countries that have joined this interpretation of the concept into a situation of potential deterioration in relations with Beijing in the event of a diplomatic dialogue-explanation.
Second ASEAN Vision of Indo-Pacific
Obviously, realizing the danger of developing the final concept of Indo-Pacific without them, ASEAN in 2018-2019 stepped up in terms of developing a unified position of the organization on this issue.
The first attempt to present the “aseanocentric” vision of Indo-Pacific took place at the 13th EAC Summit in Singapore in November 2018. Recognizing the vacuum created by ASEAN’s almost 5-year-old lack of work on the Indo-Pacific concept, the proposal put forward was the most general and included some points that the concept initiators had already tuned for in 2017, namely: “mutual trust and respect”, “centrality ASEAN”,“inclusiveness”,“transparency” . Thus, ASEAN tried to competently enter into the discourse of the formation of the concept by stating some statements that would not cause disagreement between the initiators of the concept. However, in making such a vague proposal, the ASEAN countries once again demonstrated their inability to declare their own position and draw up the boundaries of problematic issues. In the academic community, such an ASEAN speech raised many questions and led to the formation of a public conviction about the transformation of the Southeast Asian region into an arena of rivalry between the great powers .
Understanding that specifics cannot be avoided, ASEAN countries at a meeting of senior officials in Thailand in March 2019 announced the creation of a preliminary document of the ASEAN common position regarding the concept of Indo-Pacific. On June 23, 2019, this vision was published.
In its understanding of a future initiative, ASEAN builds on the geographical side of the issue. According to this approach, the region of Southeast Asia is the central place in concept, therefore it is he who should play a key place in the economic and political processes of the future concept. The attempt to declare precisely the message of the “centrality of the region” is expressed by unfounded fears of the potential fragmentation of the region on the issue of Indo-Pacific (which the USA has been actively claiming with the intensification of relations with Vietnam since 2010). It is worthwhile to understand that if ASEAN is fragmented for many years, it will lose political sovereignty as an organization, and for many years it will be in a political crisis. Therefore, the question of finding a common foundation for the Southeast Asian countries is one of the key issues in presenting their vision of the Indo-Pacific initiative.
Another distinguishing feature of ASEAN, which can be seen in the presentation of the initiative, is the absence of a statement on the creation of new institutions. According to the organization, the existing institutions of the region can cope with this: the East Asian Summit (EAC), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN +8 Ministerial Conference of Defense (ASEAN CMO + 8). Reliance on the EAC Institute can be explained from the standpoint of ASEAN’s reluctance to oppose China and Russia (to a lesser extent) to the organization’s desire to take part in the Indo-Pacific concept. Given ASEAN’s position on the “inclusive nature” of their vision, the inclusion of this countries in the list of potential foundations of the future concept does not look directly hostile to the countries initiating the anti-Chinese concept format (USA, Australia).
The main benefits for ASEAN, according to their presentation, are the region’s entry into a more intensive economic flow by participating in programs to attract foreign investment, intensifying existing projects and increasing the level of integration with world economic organizations  (which sometimes bypass Southeast Asia due to the region’s poor reputation in banking and opaque cash flow).
It is logical that the document does not actually contain any political statements about the future ending, including comparisons with the concept of APR, a vision of political interaction in the future of Indo-Pacific (ASEAN has historically very carefully expressed its political preferences).
After ASEAN’s attempts to intensify the advancement of its vision of the Indo-Pacific initiative, there was a situation where the positions of all actors with a potential concept were announced. It is obvious that the position of ASEAN, due to 5 years of silence and internal difficulties in the framework of decision-making in the organization, looks the most vulnerable. At the moment, ASEAN faces 2 conceptually important tasks:
- To convince the main actors of the future concept of Indo-Pacific (USA, Australia, Japan, India) that the «aseanocentric» vision is most appropriate to the current regional situation.
- Consolidate the organizations position on the issue of attracting (the principle of «inclusiveness» promoted since 2013) «controversial» players: China and Russia.
It is worth noting that the decision-making center for the prototype of the future Indo-Pacific concept and its potential similarity with the ideas proposed by ASEAN are now completely outside the control of ASEAN. The countries of Southeast Asia by incorrect decisions of previous years brought the region into a state of uncertainty and absolute lack of independence in building a future image of the region. This future is completely dependent on the desires of the countries initiating the concept of Indo-Pacific in 2017, primarily the United States.
The greatest that ASEAN can do now, as a single organization, is through diplomatic negotiations to achieve the greatest possible inclusion of the proposals put forward by them for the future region in the final version of the concept. It is excluded that the ASEAN option will be adopted as the basic prototype of the Indo-Pacific.
Understanding that to accomplish task No. 1, ASEAN will need some negotiation flexibility. It is expected that the organization will not raise uncomfortable issues, in the form of involving China and Russia in the Indo-Pacific.
Thus, it is worth noting that the question of ASEAN in Indo-Pacific initially looked like some kind of test for the political suitability of an organization that it did not pass successfully. The organization’s position was twice late on the impulses of the discussion: first in 2007, then in 2017. The situation with the future of ASEAN in Indo-Pacific was significantly complicated by chronic internal problems in the organization, which ultimately led to the loss of the ability to influence the potential decision on the concept in 2019. The future of the concept of the Indo-Pacific almost entirely depends on the will of more successful countries to push forward.
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