Insight: The Indo-Pacific Cooperation's Significance for Indonesia
Indonesia's Vice President, Jusuf Kalla, when opening the Dialogue on Indo-Pacific Cooperation High-Level (IPC) in Jakarta on March 20, 2019. Photo by TheInsiderStories.  

JAKARTA (TheInsiderStories) – Indonesia held a High-Level Dialogue on Indo-Pacific Cooperation (IPC) in Jakarta on March 20, 2019, with the theme “Towards a Peaceful, Prosperous, and Inclusive Region.” This dialogue was held to enhance cooperation and trust building among 18 countries in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions.

For over five decades, countries in Southeast Asia and its surroundings in Asia, the Pacific Ocean and Pacific Rim have enjoyed peace and stability, upon which economic growth and welfare have accumulated. Moreover, through intensive interactions and dialogue, many important regional institutions and mechanisms have been formed, in which ASEAN has played a pivotal role.

In implementing its vision, Indonesia promoted several inherent key principles for Indo-Pacific cooperation. They include an emphasis on ASEAN centrality, openness, transparency, inclusivity and respect for international law, to enhance mutual trust, respect and benefit.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi noted, the realization of such a vision is undertaken through a two-pronged approach. First, strengthening ASEAN-led mechanisms — particularly the East Asia Summit (EAS). Second, continue to bridge and connect these mechanisms with other non-ASEAN regional mechanisms in the Indo-Pacific region.

Highlighting that the Indian Ocean Rim Association was the only “vehicle of cooperation” among coastal states bordering the Indian Ocean, Marsudi added that the Indo-Pacific concept also aims to link new Indian Ocean investments with mature investments in the Asia-Pacific. This concept – stressing ASEAN unity and centrality – has received positive responses from ASEAN member states and the bloc’s dialogue partners, with Indonesia using the moment as the main agenda item at the IPC dialogue.

But, the core question is, what’s the significance of Indonesia’s proposal of an ASEAN Indo-Pacific concept. There are three things that can be noted. First, Jakarta’s role in conceptualizing the concept, and seeking agreement from ASEAN and its dialogue partners, cements its status as the unofficial leader of ASEAN and as a global middle power.

While ASEAN traditionally eschews the delineation of a leader among its 10 states, Indonesia – being the largest member both in geographical size and population, as well as being one of ASEAN’s founding states – has long been viewed as having both the clout and capacity to spearhead critical regional initiatives.

The articulation of an Indo-Pacific strategy also speaks to Indonesia’s branding of itself internationally as a global maritime axis. This perpetuates Jakarta’s vision of being the “Global Maritime Fulcrum” – with key policy thrusts of ramping up naval capabilities, enhancing maritime trade and connectivity, and safeguarding marine resources in its territorial waters.

Second, at the regional level, the Indo-Pacific cooperation concept is significant because it entrenches ASEAN centrality – placing ASEAN in the driver’s seat in managing regional geopolitics and addressing the multifaceted security and economic challenges.

Instead of allowing external powers to dictate terms of Indo-Pacific cooperation – such as Beijing with its Belt and Road Initiative, or Washington and Tokyo with their yet-to-be-defined free and open Indo-Pacific strategy – ASEAN is seizing the initiative to propose the “rules of engagement.” This could persuade regional powers to abide by ASEAN’s envisaged concept, as all powers present at the EAS adhere to and are comfortable with the ASEAN Way of maintaining ASEAN centrality, nonintervention in internal affairs, and consensual decision-making.

Being the only inclusive regional security platform where all East Asian powers are represented, discussion of ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific concept at the EAS – and obtaining agreement from EAS members on what it stands for and the way forward – ensures that states are on the same page. With ASEAN taking the lead, individual powers are discouraged from announcing unilateral declaratory statements on their own Indo-Pacific concept, should it differ from ASEAN’s definition.

Third, at the international level, Indonesia’s – and subsequently ASEAN’s – proposal of a cogent Indo-Pacific partnership strategy serves to offset great power politics by providing a view independent from the United States, China, and other interested powers like India, Japan, or Australia.

ASEAN’s centrality, which defines the regional security architecture, makes it more likely that its proposal will be accepted by all powers. Any vision proposed by other powers could be accused of attempting to assert hegemony in the region, and ASEAN – being a neutral block of states trusted by EAS members – is best placed to reassure all parties of its benign and collaborative intentions.

The articulation of ASEAN’s own Indo-Pacific concept also preempts any competitive narratives emanating from Washington or Beijing. The ASEAN narrative is one of collaboration for the benefit of all Indo-Pacific states, with the thrust toward developing “economic growth centers” particularly appealing for the region’s developing nations.

Powers that may wish to assert a new era of great power competition would gain no traction among Indo-Pacific states after ASEAN’s pronouncement of its strategy emphasizing mutual security and economic gains. Nonetheless, major questions still remain on the applicability and feasibility of Jakarta’s Indo-Pacific concept proposed by Marsudi.

For example, beyond the principles and conceptual underpinnings, what should states concretely do to implement the strategy? With China already possessing de facto control of the South China Sea, how may ASEAN and Indo-Pacific states enforce the respect of international law with peaceful dispute resolution? How can the scourges of piracy and terrorism be better mitigated while ASEAN member states continue to resist intervention in domestic affairs?

There remains substantial dissonance between Indonesia’s suggested Indo-Pacific partnership concept and the reality on the ground. This requires further strategic thinking to achieve reconciliation between desired and likely outcomes.

In today’s geopolitical narrative where the much-vaunted confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans has taken center stage, ASEAN’s ability to maintain its prized centrality will depend on Indonesia – and its fellow ASEAN member states – closing the cognitive gaps in its Indo-Pacific strategy. And it must do so in a manner that regional powers find convincing and nonadversarial to their interests.

Written by Lexy Nantu, Email: