Reclaiming The Indo Pacific Narrative

By moderator July 8, 2019 14:35

Harsh v Pant, Director, Studies, at Observer Research Foundation expressed his views on the significance of ASEAN collective vision document on the Indo Pacific

Important Analysis

  • Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members articulate a collective vision for the Indo Pacific region in a document titled “The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo Pacific” at its 34th summit of the ASEAN in Bangkok in June 
      • Though there were divisions among ASEAN member states in the run-up to the summit, they managed to come up with a non-binding document.
    • For a long time, the ASEAN has been reluctant to frontally engage with the Indo Pacific discourse as the perception was that it may antagonize China. 
  • But there was soon a realization that such an approach might allow others to shape the regional architecture and marginalize the ASEAN itself. 
      • And so the final outlook that the ASEAN has come up with effectively seeks to take its own position rather than following anyone power’s lead.
  • A collective vision for the Indo Pacific region came out after other major regional players formalize their vision about Indo Pacific
    • The release of the U.S. Free and Open Indo Pacific (FOIP) strategy report in June —  it focusses on preserving a “free and open Indo Pacific” in the face of a more “assertive China” — was perhaps the final push that was needed to bring the ASEAN discussion on the subject to a close.
    • Japan had already unveiled its Free and Open Indo Pacific concept in 2016, while Australia released its Foreign Policy White Paper in 2017, detailing its Indo Pacific vision centered around security, openness, and prosperity.
    • Prime Minister Narendra Modi articulated India’s Indo Pacific vision at the Shangri-la Dialogue in 2018, with India even setting up an Indo Pacific wing in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) earlier this year.

Significance of Document

  • This document has its own significance because at this time there is an escalating geopolitical contestation between China and the United States and it has become imperative for the ASEAN to reclaim the strategic narrative in its favour in order to underscore its centrality in the emerging regional order.
  • Despite individual differences and bilateral engagements ASEAN member states have with the U.S. and China, the regional grouping can now claim to have a common approach as far as the Indo Pacific region is concerned 
    • Prime Minister of Thailand, Prayuth Chan-Ocha, said it complements existing frameworks of cooperation at the regional and sub-regional levels and generate tangible and concrete deliverables for the benefit of the region’s peoples.
  • The fact that the ASEAN has gone ahead and articulated an Indo Pacific outlook is in itself a seeming challenge to China which refuses to validate the concept.
    • But the ASEAN’s approach is aimed at placating China by not allowing itself to align with the U.S.’s vision for the region completely.

The key feature of the document

  • The document underlines the need for an inclusive and “rules-based framework” to “help to generate momentum for building strategic trust and win-win cooperation in the region”.
  • ASEAN outlook does not see the Indo Pacific as one continuous territorial space, it emphasizes development and connectivity, underlining the need for maritime cooperation, infrastructure connectivity, and broader economic cooperation.
  • It argues that the rise of material powers, i.e. economic and military, requires avoiding the deepening of mistrust, miscalculation and patterns of behaviour based on a zero-sum game
    • Zero-sum game: In game theory and economic theory, a zero-sum game is a mathematical representation of a situation in which each participant’s gain or loss of utility is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the utility of the other participants.
  • ASEAN member states agreeing to push for a quick conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, an increasingly contested maritime space which is claimed largely by China and in parts by the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
    • Tensions continue to rise over the militarization of this waterway; in June, a Philippine fishing boat sank after it was rammed by a Chinese vessel.

India’s Position

India has welcomed the ASEAN’s outlook on the Indo Pacific as it sees “important elements of convergence” with its own approach towards the region.


With the ASEAN finally coming to terms with its own role in it, the ball is now in the court of other regional stakeholders to work with the regional grouping to shape a balance of power in the region which favours inclusivity, stability and economic prosperity.

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By moderator July 8, 2019 14:35