Dr. Dino Patti Djalal

The Jakarta Post – February 25, 2019

The year 2019 is poised to be a critical episode for the Indo-Pacific. This is the year when ASEAN will attempt to form a common position on the Indo-Pacific, and before that, there will also be an East Asia Summit (EAS) foreign ministers conference in Jakarta in March. The Indo-Pacific, of course, is not a new concept. I would say that the EAS — created in 2005 and since 2011 has included the United States and Russia — is in itself a manifestation of Indo-Pacific thinking; let’s call it Indo Pacific 1.0.

But the Indo-Pacific still means different things to different countries, which attach different labels to the concept, using buzz words such as free, open, sovereign, inclusive, stable, prosperous, peaceful, cooperative and so on. In the currently evolving situation, it would perhaps be useful to not be married to particular labels as yet.

There is now a new push to advance the concept to the next level. For lack of a better term, let’s call it Indo-Pacific 2.0.

To upgrade to Indo-Pacific 2.0, let’s be genuinely clear about what we mean by “inclusive”. Inclusive may refer to being open to all countries in the Indo-Pacific, but the big elephant in the room is of course China.

China has been left out in the discourse on the Indo-Pacific, which has been considerably driven by the Quad countries — the US, Japan, India and Australia. Even if that is not the intention, my discussion with Chinese officials reveal that to be the case.

The Americans have said their “Indo-Pacific Strategy” was not directed toward China, but the Chinese are not convinced, especially since the American narrative of what “free” and “open” mean seem to be hinted against China and seen as an effort to marginalize Beijing.

The inclusion of China is important because throughout Asia’s history, no comprehensive regional design can have staying power if it has a hidden strategic agenda. For Indo-Pacific 2.0 to succeed, China must be a full participant from the beginning of the discussion.

China will also need assurance that Indo-Pacific is not a move to counter-balance Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Indeed, to ease Chinese concerns, the Indo-Pacific must openly give recognition and space to the Belt and Road Initiative, as it should all other regional initiatives.

This is why the wisest course of action is for ASEAN to take the lead on Indo-Pacific 2.0. China certainly would be far more comfortable to join in a process led by ASEAN than by the Quad. In many ways, Indo-Pacific 2.0 is a critical test not just of ASEAN centrality but more importantly, of ASEAN leadership.

An important way to achieve Indo-Pacific 2.0 is to improve the EAS. The summit has been useful in providing a forum to engage in face-to-face discussions on a wide range of regional issues. It unfortunately has not been the forum of choice to resolve the region’s major strategic issues: the US-China trade war, South China Sea disputes, North Korea’s denuclearization, Kuril Island dispute, the Rohingya and so on.

Reforming the EAS — particularly its capacity to manage conflict and enhance cooperation — would be key to Indo-Pacific 2.0. I hope I am wrong, but I sense there is either a poverty of ideas or lack of political commitment to seriously upgrade the EAS.

Yet, institutionally speaking, the EAS is not the only game in town. Consistent with spirit of the Indo-Pacific, it is time for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) to admit India and Pakistan into the organization. The rationale for a moratorium of APEC membership — to allow member economies to consolidate — is now obsolete. APEC should even consider changing its name to Indo-Pacific Economic Cooperation (IPEC).

The planned conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation (RCEP) — despite the US’ absence — at the end of 2019 should also be considered as an important building block of Indo-Pacific 2.0.

Efforts to advance Indo-Pacific 2.0 have centered on the question of rules and norms. Here, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation is a good starting point; all the key players in the Indo-Pacific 2.0 have at least signed on to that Treaty’s rules, norms and values. The idea for an Indo-Pacific Treaty — envisioned by then-foreign minister Marty Natalegawa in 2013 — should also be kept in play unless a better option presents itself.

However, as the founder of a grassroots foreign policy organization, I would advise policymakers that there is a good deal of public skepticism regarding rules and norms. Many believe that great powers emphasize “rules and norms” to make everyone else fall in line, but the giants will not hesitate to violate these rules whenever their interests are threatened.

These critics also point to the US invasion of Iraq, China’s unilateral moves in the South China Sea or to the fact that the US has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and thus is not accountable to it. They say that unless there are credible ways to strictly and fairly enforce what have been agreed, middle and small powers stand to lose out.

In order to upgrade institutions, shape the rules and transform the region, no amount of bureaucratic work from foreign ministers and diplomats will succeed unless their leaders can be bold and imaginative. Yet, there is no sign that major tensions in the region are changing in any meaningful way.

Thus far, we are still seeing too much cold-war mentality, strategic insecurity, zero-sum rivalry, trust deficit and economic brinkmanship in the circuit.

If this is what Indo-Pacific 2.0 is about, it will amount to a huge disappointment.

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