2019 is poised to be a critical year for the “Indo-Pacific”. This is the year where ASEAN will attempt to form a common position on the Indo-Pacific, and before that, there will also be an EAS Foreign Ministers Conference in Jakarta in March. Indo-Pacific, of course, is not a new concept. I would say that the East Asia Summit (EAS) — created in 2005 and since 2011 has included the US and Russia — is in itself a manifestation of Indo-Pacific thinking; let's call it Indo-Pacific 1.0.
However, except for Australia, the concept fell into momentary abeyance since 2015. Then in November 2017, President Donald Trump spoke in Da Nang, Vietnam about “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, which sparked renewed interests. The Indonesian Government, after a 3-year lapse, followed suit in January 2018. Henceforth, the so-called Quad — US, India, Japan, Australia — became outspoken about free and open Indo Pacific. The most visionary elaboration on Indo-Pacific thus far was given by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June 2018.
Indo-Pacific still means different things to different countries, which attach different labels to the concept — “free”, “open”, “sovereign”, “inclusive”, “stable”, “prosperous”, “peaceful”, “cooperative”, etc. There is also no consensus on how many countries are included in the Indo-Pacific. In the currently evolving situation, it would perhaps be useful to not be married to particular labels as yet.
There is now a new push to advance the concept to the next level — for want of a better term, let's call it Indo-Pacific 2.0. Which begs the question: what is new with the present discourse? Is Indo-Pacific 2.0 just a reaffirmation of the old concept, or does it offer something new? In what way is the Indo-Pacific 2.0 an upgrade — and not a downgrade — from the previous one? Unless there is clarity in answering these questions, the Indo-Pacific will become more interesting than impactful.
Let me suggest some ways to upgrade to Indo-Pacific 2.0.
The China Question
To begin, let's be genuinely clear about what we mean by “inclusive”. Inclusive may refer to being open to all countries in the Indo-Pacific, but the big elephant in the room is of course: China.
China has been left out in the discourse on the Indo-Pacific, which has been considerably driven by the Quad countries (US, Australia, Japan, India). Even if that is not the intention, my discussion with Chinese officials reveals that to be the case. The Americans have said their "Indo-Pacific Strategy" is not directed towards China but the Chinese are not convinced, especially since the American narrative of what “free” and “open” mean seems to be hinted against China and seen as an effort to marginalize Beijing.
The inclusion of China is important because, throughout Asia’s history, no comprehensive regional design can have to stay power if it has a hidden strategic agenda. For Indo-Pacific 2.0 to succeed, China must be a full participant since the beginning of the discussion. China’s response to Indo-Pacific 2.0 thus far is a combination of mute, passive and skeptical, but if it does join the debate it is likely to offer its own narrative.
China will also need assurance that Indo-Pacific is not a move to counter-balance Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Indeed, to ease Chinese concerns, the Indo-Pacific must openly give recognition and space to Belt and Road Initiative, as it should all other regional initiatives. This is why the wisest course of action is for ASEAN to take the lead on the Indo-Pacific 2.0. China certainly would be far more comfortable to join in a process led by ASEAN than by the Quad (all of which have competitive relations with China). In many ways, Indo-Pacific 2.0 is a critical test not just of ASEAN Centrality but more importantly of ASEAN leadership.
An important way to achieve Indo-Pacific 2.0 is to improve the East Asia Summit (EAS). The EAS has been useful in providing a forum to engage in face-to-face discussions on a wide range of regional issues. Unfortunately, the EAS has not been the forum of choice to resolve the region’s major strategic issues: US-China trade war, the South China Sea disputes, North Korea denuclearization, Kuril island dispute, the Rohingyas, and so on.
Moreover, the EAS has not been able to stop and reverse the resurgence of great powers rivalry, which is affecting the overall strategic landscape in the Indo-Pacific. Reforming the EAS — particularly its capacity to manage conflict and enhance cooperation — would be key to Indo-Pacific 2.0. I hope I am wrong, but I sense there is either poverty of ideas or lack of political commitment to seriously upgrade the EAS.
Yet, institutionally speaking, EAS is not the only game in town. Consistent with the spirit of the “Indo-Pacific", it is time for APEC to admit India, and also Pakistan, into the organization. The rationale for a moratorium of APEC membership — to allow member economies to consolidate — is now obsolete. APEC should even consider changing its name to Indo-Pacific Economic Cooperation (IPEC). The planned conclusion of Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation (RCEP) — despite the absence of the US in it — at the end of 2019 should also be considered as an important building block of the Indo-Pacific 2.0.
While the present focus is on the maritime dimension (Pacific and Indian Oceans), it is worth noting that Indo-Pacific also encompasses continental areas — a very vast portion of Asia. In the medium term, it would be wise to consider engaging the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) — which include China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan — into the loose architecture of Indo-Pacific 2.0. The strategic necessity for this is obvious but the diplomatic trick is how to pursue this without losing ASEAN Centrality. I propose that at some point in the future, following the East Asia Summit (EAS), there should be a day dedicated to the EAS - SCO summit. Why not?
The efforts to advance Indo-Pacific 2.0 have centered on the question of rules and norms. The question here is: what are the rules and norms, who gets to set these rules, and how to ensure that they will be respected?
Here, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation is a good starting point — all the key players in the Indo-Pacific 2.0 have at least signed on to that Treaty’s rules, norms values. The idea for an Indo-Pacific Treaty — envisioned by Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa in 2013 — should also be kept in play unless a better option presents itself.
However, as the founder of a grassroots foreign policy organization, I would advise policymakers that there is a good deal of public skepticism regarding rules and norms. Many believe that great powers emphasize “rules and norms” to make everyone else fall in line, but the giants will not hesitate to violate these rules whenever their interests are threatened. These critics also point to U.S. invasion of Iraq, or to China’s unilateral moves in the South China Sea, or to the fact that the U.S. has not ratified the UN Convention on the of the Sea (UNCLOS) and thus not accountable to it. They say that unless there are credible ways to strictly and fairly enforce what has been agreed, middle and small powers stand to lose out.
Simply put, the issue of “rules and norms”, while undeniably necessary in statecraft, suffers from severe inconsistency and are thus less attractive in the eyes of the general public, and it is wise for policy-makers not to take this lightly.
All in all, the million-dollar question is whether the Indo-Pacific 2.0 will be a platform for the retrenchment of same-old great powers competition, or whether it will actually produce a new regional order that will transform the Indo-Pacific into a region which would effectively minimize rivalries, optimize cooperation, resolve conflicts and increase strategic trust. It’s a tricky question because the strategic intentions — as opposed to official rhetorics — of the key players remained obscure.
Herein lies the key: statesmanship. In order to upgrade institutions, shape the rules, and transform the region, no amount of bureaucratic work from foreign ministers and diplomats will succeed unless their leaders can be bold and imaginative. Yet, there is no sign that the major tensions in the region are changing in any meaningful way. Thus far, we are still seeing too much cold war mentality, strategic insecurity, zero-sum rivalry, trust deficit and economic brinkmanship in the circuit.
If this is what Indo-Pacific 2.0 is about, it will amount to a huge disappointment.
A shortened version of this article was published in The Jakarta Post on 25 February 2019.