ASEAN’s Role in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy

June 28, 2018

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Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 425

ASEAN’s Role in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy

By Kavi Chongkittavorn

Ever since US President Donald Trump announced the Indo-Pacific strategy at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meeting in November, 2017 at Danang, Vietnam, the leaders from of the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have been anxious trying to figure out what it really means and to understand the possible long-term regional implications.

Eight months have elapsed and the US has not yet come out with detailed strategic and operational plans, except for some outlines. The US State Department views the Indo-Pacific strategy in an all-encompassing way, which includes security, economic, and social aspects. The Defense Department’s version, however, puts more emphasis on strategic matters. Both share key commonalities of an ideal Indo-Pacific region that must be free from any coercion, open for free and competitive trade, abide by rules of law and universal principles. Emphasis is also placed by both on commercial governance as well as high-quality investment in infrastructure and connectivity.


Image result for at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2018 in Singapore, Defense Secretary General James Mattis

At the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2018 in Singapore  Defense Secretary General James Mattis reiterated that ASEAN centrality remains vital to the success of the Indo-Pacific strategy.

In his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2018 in Singapore, Defense Secretary General James Mattis highlighted four pivotal elements of this strategy. First, it has to do with the maritime commons, which requires capacity and capabilities building in naval and law enforcement. It is aimed at improving monitoring and projection of maritime borders and interests within the region. Second, it is about expanding interoperability and establishing a network of allies and partners working together to increase mutual trust between militaries and economies. Third, it aims at strengthening the rule of law, civil society and transparent governance, promoting sustainable economic development. Finally, it foresees an increasing role of private sector in promoting development and finance institutions to be “better, more responsive partners.” Transfer of knowledge and technology with end-to-end solutions would also be front and center to this approach without abandoning economic sovereignty of recipient nations.

The essence of US Indo-Pacific strategy has been aptly summarized by General Mattis, who called it a subset of the US broader security strategy: “Make no mistake: America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay. This is our priority theater,” he declared. Indeed, the Pacific Command, which oversees security stretching both the Indian and Pacific Oceans, has changed its name to the Indo-Pacific Command.

During the informal meeting with ASEAN Defense Ministers on the sidelines of the Shangri-la Dialogue, Gen Mattis praised the group’s consensus-making process, which aims to avoid confrontation. He reiterated that ASEAN centrality remains vital to the success of the Indo-Pacific strategy.

Over the past months, Australia, Japan, and India, which are democratic allies of the United States, have also put forward their visions of Indo-Pacific strategy. They comprise similar features to the US concept, emphasizing an international rules-based order and norms, transparency, governance, maritime security, and infrastructure. Furthermore, they also pinpointed ASEAN centrality as a driving force for forging closer cooperation in the region.

However, Japan and India also have broadened the Indo-Pacific’s geographic footprints to include not only the two oceans — Indian and Pacific — but also the two continents of Asia and Africa. Obviously, as major Asian economies, they would like to connect the Asian continent and business opportunities with Africa, which has enjoyed impressive growth over the past two decades.

As ASEAN has been accorded a higher profile by major powers, the 10 member-states are also under constant pressure to respond to their clarion calls and prove their mettle. Given the rapid shifts of the regional and international environment, ASEAN has to be more proactive and adopt forward-looking positions on key transnational issues such as the North Korean nuclear crisis, extremism, and cyber security. Most importantly, it must ensure that no one nation should be allowed to dominate the region. This appeal comes at the time when ASEAN is building up its regional security architecture, reliance on its existing security mechanism, and security partnerships.

For the time being, only three countries — Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam — have expressed their individual opinions about the perceived role of ASEAN in the overall Indo-Pacific scheme. Obviously, as the group’s biggest economy, Indonesia has been the leading voice on the Indo-Pacific concept. In 2013, former foreign minister Marty Natalegawa proposed that ASEAN and its dialogue partners committed to peace-building and non-use of force to further prevent conflicts in the region, but received lukewarm support. However, the government under President Joko Widodo has decided to revive the idea again after Trump’s announcement of Indo-Pacific with a new emphasis that rebranded Indonesia as a maritime power.

To ensure continuity, Jakarta is working closely with Thailand, the upcoming chair of ASEAN. Bangkok will coordinate all ASEAN positions and prepare a report for the members next year. At the 32nd ASEAN summit, the leaders discussed the Indo-Pacific concept but did not come up with any position. In the chairman’s statement, it simply said that ASEAN looked forward to further discussing the new concept.

Granted the lack of details from Washington, ASEAN senior officials quickly filled the gap. They have already discussed and exchanged notes on points of convergence that need to be included in the ASEAN Indo-Pacific version. These are some of elements: free and open, rules based, complementary, ASEAN-led mechanism, ASEAN centrality, connectivity, infrastructure, inclusiveness, and not involving a third party.

Meanwhile, the Washington-based ASEAN diplomats have been informed by the US State Department that the details of US Indo-Pacific would soon be available. President Donald Trump is scheduled to take part in the 13th East Asian Summit in early November in Singapore. He expects to outline the contour of the Indo-Pacific strategy himself.

Despite President Trump’s decisions to revoke several of the international commitments and cooperative frameworks of his predecessor Barack Obama, including the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), he has maintained existing programs and activities related to US-ASEAN bilateral cooperation. With continued strong bipartisan support, Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy will be value-added to further strengthening the US interoperability and networks of security partners in the region.

All in all, it is incumbent on ASEAN to reach out to the United States, Japan, India, and Australia to ascertain that all proposed elements are synergized and most importantly, the emerging broader strategy would place ASEAN in the center.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington, DC, and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University. He can be contacted at

APB Series Founding Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye | APB Series Coordinator: Peter Valente

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the East-West Center or any organization with which the author is affiliated.

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue. Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

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One thought on “ASEAN’s Role in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy

  1. The Trump administration has rolled out its new Indo-Pacific strategy, meant to reshape America’s regional approach and coalesce efforts to manage a rising China. But allies and adversaries alike are left wondering if the US really has the will and resources to make it happen.

    On his way to Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stopped in Hawaii and presided over the renaming of the Pacific Command, which will now be called US Indo-Pacific Command. The actual responsibilities of the command didn’t change, just the name. There hasn’t been a real shift of US military focus on the region.

    At the Shangri-La Dialogue, Mattis pointed to the Trump administration’s National Defense Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, which call out China as a “revisionist power” and a “strategic competitor,” respectively. He protested China’s military aggression in the South China Sea and suggested its economic policy was predatory. He also said China’s rise should be welcomed if Beijing is willing to play by the rules (American rules?). Mattis promised to implement Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy by reinvigorating American investment, working to strengthen the rule of law, increasing attention to the maritime space and deepening alliances.

    Mattis’s speech sounded reassuring, but there is a huge gap between US pledges and what many conference attendees are seeing on the ground. I believe the region welcomes the aspirations of the Indo-Pacific strategy as a sign of broader strategy and regional engagement. The challenge is that it’s just aspirational — a set of goals with no real strategy, policy enumeration or implantation plan, let alone resourcing and budget. Where’s the beef?

    After withdrawing from TPP, the Trump administration has done nothing to show the region it has a proactive trade policy. The Trump administration criticizes China’s Belt and Road Initiative but hasn’t presented countries in the region a viable alternative to Chinese funds. Without a real trade and economic strategy, America’s overall strategic leadership isn’t credible.

    Moreover, Trump is threatening several regional allies with tariffs or sanctions. Trump’s on-again, off-again, on-again diplomacy with North Korea has allies worried the American president isn’t properly prepared to head into a delicate and hugely consequential negotiation.

    Furthermore, Trump frequently talks about withdrawing US troops from the region. Mattis disinvited China from a multilateral naval exercise, but China’s military takeover of large swaths of the South China Sea seems permanent. There’s no consensus about what to do about it. And there’s no common understanding about how the Trump administration plans to back up its words with action.

    By changing the name from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific, the delusional Trump was actually trying to lure India into helping to contain China. But India is not taking the bait. Prior to the Singapore Dialogue, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a meeting in Wuhan, China. What they have discussed only Modi and Xi know, for no one was around except their interpreters.

    At the Singapore conference, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis laid out their different views of what “Indo-Pacific” means. Both focused on building an open and free system that upholds the rights of countries and the rule of law, and promotes prosperity. But Modi was clear in saying India is not interested in alliances aimed at containing China.

    “India does not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate,” Modi said. “And by no means do we consider it as directed against any country. A geographical definition, as such, cannot be.”

    Trump does not have a long haul plan to ensure that the US would maintains its leadership and strategic role in the Indo-Pacific region that covers defense, diplomacy and economics. Trump administration officials say the details of its Asia strategy are coming soon. That doesn’t reassure the countries of the region, which are already doubting America’s credibility and reliability.

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