United States secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross, will visit Indonesia and Vietnam next week - Photo by CNBC

JAKARTA (TheInsiderStories) – United States (US) secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross, will visit Indonesia and Vietnam next week after attends the Indo-Pacific Business Forum in Bangkok, Thailand, the department said yesterday (10/31). The forum is part of a series of ASEAN summit meetings to be held in Thailand during this weekend.

Ross will lead a business delegation to the meetings. With nearly US$2 trillion in two-way trade in 2018, he is looking to cultivate key partnerships across the Indo – Pacific as American companies are launching or expanding their businesses in these markets, said the statement.

Beside him, Indonesian President Joko Widodo also will join the meeting and is expected to speak about the adoption of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) outlook on the Indo-Pacific and the next step forward at the East Asia Summit (EAS).

At the latest meeting, the ASEAN leaders stated, Indo-Pacific outlook has become reference for maintaining regional stability in the ASEAN countries. For that, the leaders agreed to prepare ASEAN-centered regional architecture to adopt the concept.

This outlook reflected ASEAN’ centrality and strength in respecting the principles of maintaining peace, strengthening a culture of dialogue, and strengthening the cooperation. Widodo asserted, ASEAN must be strong, unite and must be able to become a motor of peace and stability in Southeast Asia region.

While, Thailand’ Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha responded that the summit had approved the initiative to strengthen ASEAN’ role in establishing relations with external partners in the region.

“ASEAN currently has a general approach to the issue and needs to play a role in bridging the Pacific and Indian Oceans,” he said.

Chan-o-cha also appreciated the Indonesian president who played an important role in driving ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

Fort the first time, Indonesia held a High-Level Dialogue on Indo-Pacific Cooperation in Jakarta on March 20, 2019. 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. 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.

Highlighting that the Indian Ocean Rim Association was the only “vehicle of cooperation” among coastal states bordering the Indian Ocean, Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi, added that the Indo-Pacific concept also aims to link new Indian Ocean investments with mature investments in the Asia-Pacific.

The articulation of an Indo-Pacific strategy also speaks to Indonesia’ branding of itself internationally as a global maritime axis. This perpetuates Jakarta’ 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’ 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’ Indo-Pacific concept at the EAS ensured 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 the orgaanization’ definition.

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

ASEAN’ 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’ 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’ 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.

There remains substantial dissonance between Indonesia’ 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’ geopolitical narrative where the much-vaunted confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans has taken center stage, ASEAN’ 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.

by Linda Silaen, Email: linda.silaen@theinsiderstories.com