ASEAN has always been around the centre stage of geopolitical development in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It is not only because of its geographical presence but also due to uniformity in the larger framework of the policy for the region. This article views the Indian Ocean region from the lens of ASEAN and tries to postulate the consistent and synergic elements in the policy framework of the ASEAN that have made it relevant in the region for more than half a century. This conceptualization got to my attention through the idea of the ‘Regional Security Community’ (RSE) by Amitav Acharya. Although, he denied the status of RSE for the ASEAN and compensated it with the ‘Regional Security Regime’ (RSR). But the arguments presented were enough to highlight the consistent role and policies of ASEAN that establishes it as a major player in the region.
ASEAN emerged as a new template of multilateralism in 1967 with a primary purpose such as stability, economic growth, social progress, cultural development, and Collective Security. The evolution of multilateralism in the Asia-Pacific Region started gradually after World War II in the form of associations such as Australia, New Zealand, and the United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) in 1951, South East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1955, the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA) in 1961, etc. (Adhikary 2022). But these are examples of the NATO style of multilateralism in the cold war period as a collective security arrangement by the US to counter the influence of the Soviet bloc. But the geopolitics of the IOR changed drastically post-cold war and a new player emerged as a global power in the form of China.
It compelled the US, India, and other European power to focus on the region with new groupings such as QUAD and AUKUS. But these new groupings are in the premature stage and the geopolitical balance in the region requires collaboration amongst localized powers such as India, and ASEAN nations with multidimensional approaches to counter the Chinese assertive policies in the region.
ASEAN has proved to be a successful venture in the region since the cold war phase and has given a form of alternate framework to collaborate in the region on the common lines of cooperation such as free, open, and rule-based Indo- Pacific. In 1971, It was declared a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality (ZOPFAN) that further took the shape into the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF),1994 as a pan Indo-Pacific arrangement, comprised of Indian and Pacific Oceans from the ASEAN template. Another dimension added to it was the modification of Collective security to ‘Common Security’. It gained momentum in establishing balanced power distribution between China, the United States and Japan. The dispute between Taiwan and the South China Sea has threatened to escalate the conflict in the region. Therefore, it co-opted different members and formulations from Asia Pacific that came to be known as ASEAN Plus Formulations such as ASEAN Plus 3 (Japan, China and South Korea) and ASEAN Plus 6 with the addition of India, Australia and New Zealand. Since 2005, It emerged in the form of the East Asia Summit (EAS) to build a solid framework of multilateralism. Another major ASEAN-centric initiatives are Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation which consists of 21 countries (economies) across the Pacific Rim including China and the US. The latest major development is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnerships (RCEP) which has turned out to be the largest free trade agreement to build economic multilateralism. The major common point that marks the consistency and synergy in the policy of all ASEAN nations is the common politico socio values which in this case is the liberal democratic values at least amongst the partners. Also, the absence of any coercive measures among the members in any disputed matter and the urge to dissolve the issues amicably propels them to enact an informal union and achieve the common objectives in the region. Furthermore, these nations are emerging as an alternative for institutional investors in the form of new manufacturing outlets, outside China. Using the same line of logic, it is
countering Chinese rising assertion without many hues and cry in the name of multilateral cooperation in the region.
The concluding remarks that emerge out of this study are that new alignments such as AUKUS or QUAD are quite a new equation that is not mature enough and tasted through difficult times that makes it slightly sceptical. Rather, ASEAN has reflected its presence in different geopolitical moods and swings. Moreover, ASEAN is engaging economically bilaterally and multilaterally with every player in the region as well as addressing its security concerns with the help of other powers too such as India and the US. So, India and others can rely upon and collaborate with ASEAN and work for a rule-based mechanism to shape the politics of the region.