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Thursday, December 13, 2018, 20:15 (GMT+7)
ASEAN and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy

Since the introduction of the concept “free and open Indo-Pacific” (more than one year ago), this concept has been developed into a quite comprehensive Strategy. The implementation of this Strategy has opened up many opportunities but posed a lot of challenges to the regional security, particularly the Southeast Asia’s security.

An overview on the Strategy

Unlike other U.S. strategies, when being released, the “free and open Indo-Pacific” Strategy didn’t had the specific comprehension. Thus, according to a recent announcement made by America, in spite of the fact that it is being implemented, the Strategy continues to be supplemented, completed, and extended into other fields, such as economy, energy, and infrastructure. In this Strategy, America considers the Indo-Pacific an important strategic area to be invested in and expresses its determination to fulfil its commitments to its allies and partners in the region while striving to build a secured, safe, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region based on the principles of democracy, freedom, rule of law, market economy, openness, transparency, and equitability among all countries.

Politically, the U.S. stresses the two issues of “freeness” and “openness”. Washington advocates freedom, independence, sovereignty, unification, territorial integrity of all countries. America will respect and heighten all peoples’ right to freedom, basic rights of citizens, and values of democracy. Countries have the right to get unlimited access to international waters and open space, resolve disputes by peaceful means on the basis of international law and practices. The U.S. affirms that it will not impose or let any country impose the hegemonic control upon the region, pledging that it will be consistent in both word and action.

Economically, America will compete with all sides equally for economic interests; pursue a win-win, equal, free trade policy; encourage logistics services and regional countries to build an open, favourable investment environment and market economy; not earn the economic benefits in a way that harms other countries. Besides, it opposes the debt-trap policy by some countries aimed at pushing other countries into debt or profiting from the others.

Concerning partners and regional mechanisms, America will continue to deeply, widely take part in the region’s existing mechanisms. It will support and aid the ASEAN’s central role in the Indo-Pacific Strategy while continuing to participate in the region’s mechanisms, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+), the East Asia Summit (EAS), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) as well as mechanisms for ASEAN+3 and ASEAN+4 cooperation with other partners. In the East Asia, America focuses on improving and modernizing its alliances with Japan and South Korea in response to the 21st century’s challenges. As for the Southeast Asia, America will restore its alliances with the Philippines and Thailand, promote the partnership with Singapore and develop new partnerships with major countries in this region. In the Oceania, America will maintain the long-standing alliance with Australia and restore defence partnership with New Zealand. It will strengthen its military presence and cooperation with its allies’ forces stationed in the Pacific region, such as UK, France and Canada to encourage the common interests. As for the South Asia, America regards its relationship with India as a natural partnership between the world’s two greatest democracies based on the common strategic benefits and values, the mutual respect, and the respect for a rules-based international order. As far as China is concerned, America strongly criticizes China’s militarization of man-made island in the East Sea, including this country’s deployment of surface-to-sea, surface-to-air missiles and bombers to the Hoang Sa archipelago, warning that China will suffer bad consequences for its effort to militarize the East Sea.

US President Donald Trump, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, former Australian  Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (photo: AFP/Getty)

Since early July 2018, America has started realizing the intent of this Strategy, imposing a series of taxes worth hundreds of billions of USD on China’s goods exported to the U.S. and officially waging the U.S.-China trade war. At the ARF held in Singapore in August 2018, America announced two packages worth 300 million USD and 113 million USD respectively to help the ASEAN states maintain security and facilitate the economic development. In addition, Washington renamed the Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific Command and deployed more modern warships, aircraft and military equipment to this region. It should be noted that after 2023, America will deploy 2 aircraft carriers to duty in the East China Sea and the South China Sea at the same time.

Three other countries of the quartet, namely Japan, India and Australia share common viewpoints on the goals, principles, and intent of the free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy with America. These countries all hope to maintain the existing order of the region - a peaceful, stable, free and open region for all sides. Nevertheless, each country has its own plan and approach to the Strategy. Meanwhile, Washington wants to take advantage of the Strategy to build a defensive line from afar in a bid to push the threats and challenges as far away as possible from America. At the same time, it would like Japan to be more active in the region’s security, burden itself with more responsibilities, and better cooperate with America. Besides, taking advantage the Strategy, Japan hopes to raise its role and status in the region as well as maintain the US commitment to protecting the allies. In the meantime, India only describes the Indo-Pacific as a natural region with many historical connections with this country. It has no complete strategy associated with the U.S. Strategy and mainly focuses on a several key partners in the Southeast Asia in an effort to consolidate defence cooperation and provide maritime logistics services. For New Zealand, it pays attention to many other issues, such as Pakistan and South Asia. As far as Australia is concerned, in spite of the fact that it shares the common goals, principles and intent of the Strategy, this country’s regard to the Indian Ocean Region has been paid recently; therefore, it can not join America with a complete strategy. Moreover, as its resources are limited, and it does not want to “displease” China, it has a careful approach to the Strategy.

The issues related to the ASEAN

Experts all believe that ASEAN holds a position of paramount importance to the free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy due to its geographical position and influences on the regional order. The Strategy brings a lot of opportunities to the ASEAN member states as follows.

First, most of the Strategy’s goals, principles and intent do not go against the ASEAN’s viewpoints, stance and interests.

Second, ASEAN member states are thirsty for building their high-quality infrastructure, maintaining energy and cyber security, and encouraging economic and commercial connectivity and investment. The U.S. and Japan’s willingness to ensure cooperation will be an opportunity for this region.

Third, ASEAN would like its partners to assist its members in building high-calibre personnel, providing equipment for all fields, and particularly training military and security officers. It will be also ready to cooperate with other countries to make active contributions to peace and stability of the region and the world.

Fourth, ASEAN always expects the Asia-Pacific Region and the Indian Ocean Region to be peaceful, stable, free and open for all sides on the basis of international law and practices, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS) and the ASEAN-led mechanisms, such as ASEAN+1 (between ASEAN and each of its partners, namely Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and America), ASEAN+3 (ASEA and China, Japan, and South Korea), EAS, ADMM+, etc. Thus, it is clear to see that when America and its allies realize the Strategy, ASEAN will benefit from that.

However, the Strategy poses many challenges to the ASEAN member states. The role of ASEAN in the region could be lowered when America changes its pivot from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific and restores the quarterlateral consultation mechanism (including Australia, India, Japan, America) as the core of the Strategy. Besides, ASEAN must always support the principle of centrality and neutrality in a bid to balance its relations with major powers. This principle will not be ensured if ASEAN is believed to support the free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy. Moreover, ASEAN will not be pleased to join a bloc formed by countries opposing one another or to select one side. Selecting China or America will possibly destroy ASEAN’s centrality and neutrality.

Normally, the process of fostering cooperation with major powers always comes with the force gathering. Thus, on the one hand, ASEAN must stay alert to avoid being stuck with major powers and to deal with the issue on selecting one side. On the other hand, ASEAN must remain vigilant against major powers’ compromise made behind the ASEAN member states. Therefore, well handling and balancing relations with major powers will be the key to boosting cooperation and taking advantage of big opportunities created by the free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy.

To conclude, the free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy by America has been greatly impacting on the region and the world, including the ASEAN member states, bringing opportunities and posing challenges to the region. That situation will necessitate Southeast Asian countries remaining vigilant and keeping a close watch on America’s future moves to adopt proper strategies.

Dr Tran Viet Thai, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam

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