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ASEAN must engage over maritime security

US-backed Indo-Pacific plan can bolster region without openly targeting China

John Lee

China's aircraft carrier Liaoning   © Reuters

Despite their serious disagreements over trade, the U.S., Japan and Australia are strikingly in accord on a key strategic issue -- the importance of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP).

While not overtly aimed at China, the approach is driven by concerns such as Beijing's rapid naval expansion, especially in disputed waters in the South China Sea.

But the reaction of Association of Southeast Asian Nations states -- the countries most directly affected by China's push -- has largely ranged from agnostic to silent skepticism. While some states such as Indonesia and Vietnam have shown interest, most would rather avoid talking about an idea which has been criticized by China. All would prefer that ASEAN took the lead on introducing new ideas into the regional strategic conversation.

The problem is that while these states are focused on the risks of action -- engaging with the FOIP concept in this context -- there are growing risks to ASEAN of hesitation and inaction.

The FOIP concept was first introduced by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in late 2016, further developed and endorsed by Australia when Canberra released its 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper (FPWP) in November of that year to guide policy over the next decade and beyond, and included in the Donald Trump administration's National Security Strategy released one month later.

The three partners are also eager to enlist India, which has long been a member of a loose four-state security grouping called the Quad. Although Indian premier Narendra Modi is currently reluctant to commit to FOIP, the Quad held its first meeting in a decade in November last year, raising hopes of a New Delhi rethink.

Far from being radically novel, the FOIP is a reaffirmation of the security and economic rules-based order which was cobbled together after the Second World War, especially as it relates to respect for international law, freedom of the regional and global commons such as air, sea and cyberspace, and the way nations conduct economic relations.

There are several "updates." There is a deliberate move from the "Asia-Pacific" to the "Indo-Pacific" as the primary area of interest and responsibility for Washington, Tokyo and Canberra, aimed at bringing India more into play in a more broadly-conceived Asia.

This shift is a response to China's People's Liberation Army's own "Two Ocean" strategy and Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative. It signals greater acceptance by Japan and Australia of a greater "security burden."

On the face of it, ASEAN ought to be comfortable with the above principles and objectives. However, there are fears that the change in and widening of geo-strategic focus will diminish the diplomatic centrality and relevance of ASEAN even though ASEAN-led meetings such as the East Asia Summit already includes India and takes on an Indo-Pacific perspective. The fact that the newfound interest in the Indo-Pacific was an initiative by three non-ASEAN states heightens ASEAN's apprehension that diplomatic events may well transcend ASEAN's central role in Southeast Asia.

Indeed, for some ASEAN states, the re-establishment of the Quad is a quintessential non-ASEAN Indo-Pacific initiative. Some believe it provides a glimpse of a post-ASEAN future within which ASEAN's standing is diminished. It is not lost on ASEAN states that the Quad brings together four democratic countries with hard power resources that exceed those of ASEAN states by a considerable margin.

Furthermore, ASEAN states seek to manage relationships with great powers by championing principles of 'inclusiveness' and "neutrality." If ASEAN is seen to support the FOIP which is largely aimed against China, the cover of its commitment to "inclusiveness" and "neutrality" will be blown. If that occurs, the ramifications of Chinese displeasure are feared even if they are unknown.

The challenge for ASEAN is that what worked well in the past will be less effective now. China is increasingly challenging U.S. preeminence and aspects of the rules-based order. Its grand strategy is to weaken the strategic role of the U.S. and degrade Washington's credibility as a security provider, and gradually dismantle its system of alliances.

ASEAN's preferred principles of neutrality and inclusiveness are well suited to an environment within which there are no major disagreements between great powers. Such principles come under strain when strategic competition between the U.S. and its allies on the one hand, and China on the other is intensifying.

Moreover, ASEAN's preference for conflict avoidance has caused the organisation and many of its member states to take a softer line against China with respect to the South China Sea. This is occurring even as China is changing 'facts on the water' in a manner which is shifting the strategic balance in its favor. It is worth noting that only five of the ten ASEAN states are claimants in maritime disputes with Beijing. The U.S., Japan and Australia are becoming less sympathetic to the perspective that disagreements over the South China Sea is primarily a China-ASEAN issue and will not sit idly by if Beijing continues to make strategic advances in that body of water.

Impatience with ASEAN will grow if it continues to sit on its hands. While it remains cost-free for all powers to pay lip service to ASEAN`s central role in the region, the U.S. and allies may well bypass ASEAN entirely when it comes to the conversations about strategic issues that really matter, such as Chinese expansion.

Some ASEAN states -- such as Vietnam and Indonesia -- which have been more vocal than others in criticizing Chinese behavior -- are also frustrated with ASEAN's reluctance to voice greater disapproval of Beijing. If they subsequently decide to put more emphasis on working with non-ASEAN powers, the resulting fragmentation would be a grave danger to ASEAN.

The U.S., Japan and Australia are wise to seek ASEAN endorsement for the FOIP. Despite its growing power, China is still susceptible to collective diplomatic pressure placed on it by the U.S., Japan, Australia, India and ASEAN. The latter can still formally remain neutral vis-a-vis other countries but advocate a common set of rules as it has done for decades. Engaging with the FOIP concept does not inherently "exclude" China -- it only voices disapproval of certain actions and policies.

Moreover, the implementation of the FOIP is at an early stage. Engaging with FOIP principles provides ASEAN countries with the opportunity to shape what it means in practice. Incidentally, and given the unpredictability of U.S. President Donald Trump, FOIP principles offer smaller states a means to criticize actions of the president such as policies seeking to arbitrarily reduce America's current account deficits and would contravene liberal rules of free trade.

For the U.S., Japan and Australia, early elements of a de facto trilateral alliance are forming and the FOIP concept is here to stay.

For ASEAN, the costs of inaction are significant but poorly appreciated. If it seeks to retain its central role in Southeast Asia, a passive approach will not win the day.

John Lee is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and United States Studies Center at University of Sydney. From 2016 to 2018, he was national security adviser to the Australian foreign minister.

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