One of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)’s remarkable strengths since it was formed in 1967 is its ability to maintain regional stability amid the evolving geopolitical and geo-economic dynamics in the region. ASEAN has witnessed and survived from great power rivalry, which often gives impact on the security environment in the region. The dynamics of the grouping are influenced by how great powers interact with each other in the region. However, ASEAN has chosen not to tie itself to one particular power. Since the end of the Cold War, ASEAN has been engaging with the external partners more actively in a broader Asia, including countries in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, based on the spirit of inclusiveness. By doing so, ASEAN has gained more room for its diplomacy to create regional norms and to encourage cooperation rather than competition between great powers.
Japan, as one of the long-standing partners of ASEAN, has played an important role in the Indo-Pacific region by boosting cooperation in such agendas as connectivity, environment, finance, and disaster management. Since former Prime Minister Abe’s speech of “Confluence of the Two Seas,” which was delivered in the Parliament of the Republic of India in 2007, Japan has shed light on the great significance of the Indo-Pacific region. Japan has promoted the vision of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)” and continuously emphasized that ASEAN is the core of that vision, being located in the fulcrum of these two oceans.
In a virtual interview conducted by the ASEAN Research Group of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (ARG LIPI) on Wednesday 31st March 2021, H.E. Ambassador CHIBA Akira, Ambassador of Japan to ASEAN, shared Japan’s insight on regional affairs with particular focus on the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP) and ASEAN centrality.
Ambassador Chiba pointed out that ASEAN should lead maintaining the regional stability and avoiding any military might to dominate. “ASEAN can navigate regional stability and manage great powers very well with the AOIP,” he explained. The AOIP is clearly the strategy of ASEAN to lead the prosperity and security in the region, while dealing with a player who is aiming at changing the status quo in the region and thus preventing conflicts. Against this background, ASEAN is trying to converge all the ideas and policies towards Indo-Pacific, by initiating its own version.
Ambassador Chiba believes that any country that distances itself from the principles enshrined in the ASEAN Charter and AOIP is distancing itself from ASEAN. As for Japan, ASEAN reaffirmed that the AOIP has fundamental commonalities with Japan’s FOIP. Ambassador Chiba further said the AOIP is compatible and relevant with the Indo-Pacific policies of other countries, such as those of United States, India, Australia as well as European countries, all of which are different but aiming at the same thing, that is, to abide by the rules-based international order. Moreover, he confirmed that the Quad, consisting of Japan, the United States, Australia, and India, is a framework of cooperation mainly focusing on the Indo-Pacific region, and the word that the Quad is a “mini-NATO” is just propaganda.
Differences among great powers on geopolitical and geo-economic strategies tend to bring them into destructive relations. China has aggressively built artificial islands on disputed waters in the South China Sea that concerns surrounding states. The United States made pressure on China on trade issues and protection of intellectual property rights. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 made the relations between the two even worse. “It is no secret that China and the United States are competing for influence globally, but be confident that as long as ASEAN abide by its own principles, true partners will be drawn close, and will naturally result in ASEAN centrality,” Ambassador Chiba added.
ASEAN Member States clearly need to carry out the AOIP into tangible policies. ASEAN is willing to be the centre for the cooperation and mutual understanding among nations to face all dynamics, challenges, and uncertainty in the region. With this regard, Ambassador Chiba assured that Japan has supported and will continue to support ASEAN unity and centrality not only in formal settings but also in substance to realize prosperity and stability in the region. He also emphasizes that any party in the region must refrain from exercise power in any aggressive manner, abiding by international law, and should actively engaging in maintaining the regional stability in cooperation with ASEAN.
Ambassador Chiba also brought to mind that ASEAN’s credibility and relevance are tested in the recent case of the military coup in Myanmar. Since the situation remains the same where Tatmadaw continues to act brutally against their own people, ASEAN must step to help people.
At the end of the discussion, Centre for Political Studies LIPI and the Mission of Japan to ASEAN hope that the two institutions will continue to collaborate in both academic and diplomatic activities in the future. (Pandu Prayoga)