The Evolving Indo-Pacific Construct: Responses from ASEAN and its Major Stakeholders

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Abstract

The term Indo-Pacific, which refers to a strategically significant area stretching from the littoral of east coast of Africa to the East Asian waters covering Middle East, the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific Ocean along the way, has become one of the most debated and speculated terms in contemporary strategic and foreign policy discourse.

First brought into eminence at the highest policy circles by Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, in his speech at the Indian parliament in 2007, Indo-Pacific attempts to combine the strategic thrust of Indian and the Pacific Oceans involving leading maritime powers but leaving China out. In Abe’s terms, it is a vision for the “Confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans” as “the dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity” in the “broader Asia”.

While an official articulation of the term first appeared in Australia’s Defence White Paper, 2013, India, Japan, Indonesia, and the United States have been pitching for the Indo-Pacific as a zone of rule-based order. With the US government actively brining in Indo-Pacific as the key idea for re-engaging with Asia and maintaining the strategic equilibrium in its favour, the term has gained salience.

However, the emergence of Indo-Pacific has created some uncertainties in the Southeast Asian region leading ASEAN and its member countries to reassess their strategic and foreign policy choices. Competing visions for Indo-Pacific have turned out to be a major aspect in that context. For instance, Indonesia, which claims to have proposed a comprehensive Indo- Pacific, proposes to make it inclusive treaty-based construct similar to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.

A major reason for ASEAN’s apprehension about Indo-Pacific is that it does not include China as a stakeholder in Indo-Pacific. On the contrary, China has been identified by proponents of Indo-Pacific as a threat to the rules- based order. Both China and Russia are opposed to the Indo-Pacific. While ASEAN and most of its members support a rules-based order, they have been trying their best to avoid a situation where they have to choose between China and the US.

This panel attempts to comprehensively analyze the strategic objectives of Indo-Pacific, ongoing debates about its promises and likely pitfalls, and responses from ASEAN and its major stakeholders including China.