Future of Indo-Pacific hinges on ASEAN

Less than two months after U.S. President Joe Biden was inaugurated, the United States, Japan, Australia and India, in a grouping known as the Quad, held their first summit on March 12.

During the virtual meeting, the leaders affirmed that the four nations were united in their desire to realize the vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and ward off any unilateral attempt by China to alter the status quo and impose its will on other countries in the region. They also pledged to strengthen their cooperation in tackling such global challenges as COVID-19 and climate change. Moreover, they committed to working together with other partners in the Indo-Pacific region, including those in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

On April 16, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga met Biden at the White House for their first one-on-one summit. He became the first foreign leader to have an in-person meeting with the new U.S. leader. In a joint statement, they agreed that their countries would cooperate with each other to take on a wide range of challenges, such as security and advanced technology development.

I very much welcome the Biden administration’s clear statement, made soon after its inauguration, to define the Quad grouping as the basic foreign policy framework of the United States. I also welcome the “Japan pivot” of the Biden administration as the U.S. engages in “strategic competition” with China. For its part, Japan should bolster its national defense capabilities further based on the principle of “defending itself on its own.”

Beijing criticizes the Quad as an attempt to “encircle China,” but its criticism is mistaken. If China wants to build its own Sinocentric regional order, well, the Eurasian interior is wide open.

The purpose of the Quad is to ensure that the vast maritime expanses of the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean should stay free and open, thus firmly dealing with any attempt by China to change unilaterally the regional status quo.

What should be done to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific? First, the Quad should keep in mind its relationship with ASEAN.

In 2010, then Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono became the first leader to use the term “Indo-Pacific.” Since the Asian economic crisis of 1997, ASEAN has been spearheading regional cooperation by taking the initiative in launching the ASEAN plus Three (Japan, China, South Korea), the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the East Asia Summit.

In 2010, the East Asia Summit, which then included the 10 member states of ASEAN, Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, India and New Zealand, agreed to invite the United States and Russia to join from 2011. The enlargement of the regional summit meant the lessening of ASEAN’s geopolitical weight. But Yudhoyono thought that the newfound focus on the Indo-Pacific would make everyone clearly aware of the geographic “centrality” of ASEAN between the Indian and Pacific oceans.

At around that time, however, ASEAN began drifting.

A reason this happened is that ASEAN member states include both those involved in territorial disputes with China and those that are not. Vietnam and the Philippines are at odds with China in the South China Sea. On the other hand, Thailand and Myanmar are among the member states not locked in territorial rows with China.

China has been carrying out land reclamation and militarization of islands, reefs, and shoals in the South China Sea and taking advantage of the chasm between ASEAN member states to press ahead with its strategy of undermining ASEAN unity.

The other reason for ASEAN’s drifting is China’s expanding economic influence. China has greatly increased its economic presence in ASEAN over the past decade.

Real income per capita in ASEAN member states has risen sharply. If the income level in 2000 is indexed as 100, the 2019 indexes were 428 for Myanmar, 281 for Vietnam, 209 for the Philippines and 208 for Indonesia.

Once people experience substantial income growth, they usually take it for granted and expect to be better off year after year. Governments failing to live up to such expectations become vulnerable to political instability. Therefore, economic growth has become the topmost policy requisite for ASEAN member states.

In the 2010s, China continued massive infrastructure investment in the ASEAN region to build expressways and railways and develop ports and industrial parks. China’s state-owned enterprises benefited a great deal from those ASEAN projects.

Over the same period, ASEAN member states increased their economic dependence on China. Today, China is the largest, second-largest, or third-largest export market for all ASEAN member states. Moreover, as of 2019, the outstanding debt of Cambodia and Laos to China accounted for more than twice their respective gross domestic product, while the comparable figures for Myanmar and Malaysia were exceedingly large, too.

China’s economic influence thus is so great that those countries may have no choice but to refrain from offending Beijing.

However, ASEAN member states nevertheless want to avoid excessive dependence on China. They also do not like to be forced to choose between Washington and Beijing. They want ASEAN to speak on their behalf, if possible, and use the regional grouping as leverage, whenever necessary, to safeguard their national interests.

For that purpose, they find ASEAN a useful framework, even though the Southeast Asian grouping is not necessarily easy for them to use at will. From that standpoint, they don’t want to see ASEAN’s “centrality” eclipsed by the growing importance of the Quad.

To make Quad effective, Japan should respect the “centrality” of ASEAN by taking the abovementioned circumstances of the regional grouping into consideration. Japan should accept a situation in which ASEAN member states want to strengthen their positions by utilizing Japan for leverage in the region. Such a policy toward ASEAN will be beneficial to Japan, too.

What then should Japan do specifically vis-a-vis ASEAN? Let me touch on two points.

First, Japan should strengthen maritime security cooperation, particularly with Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, the three ASEAN member states that are geopolitically important in terms of realizing a free and open Indo-Pacific.

In October last year, Suga visited Vietnam and Indonesia shortly after the Quad foreign ministers met in Tokyo. Likewise, in late March, Japan held a 2-plus-2 meeting with Indonesia, involving the foreign and defense ministers of the two countries, shortly after the Quad summit.

Furthermore, Suga intends to visit India and the Philippines and hold talks with their leaders on maritime security, among other issues.

Japan already has concluded cooperation agreements with Vietnam and Indonesia on the transfer of defense equipment and technology. Japan also has agreed with the two counties to diversify supply chains for Japanese companies. In 2020, Japan signed a deal with the Philippines to export an air defense radar system.

From now on, Japan should expand cooperation of this kind further with ASEAN member states.

The second point is Japan’s engagement with Thailand and Myanmar with regard to their democratization processes. At present, the ASEAN member states on the Southeast Asian mainland — from Vietnam in the east to Myanmar in the west — are all under authoritarian rule.

As it is clear from their geopolitical locations, Thailand and Myanmar are very important countries in the context of both realizing a free and open Indo-Pacific and reinstating the “centrality” of ASEAN.

In Thailand, popular demand for democracy has been gathering momentum, as seen in the young generation’s criticism of the country’s “old regime” on top of the urban-rural conflict between the capital Bangkok and northeastern provinces.

In Myanmar, the military seized power in a coup on Feb. 1, detaining the country’s de facto leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. The situation there remains fluid. But the military leadership is likely to seek to hold on to power by ousting her from the political scene, revising the country’s election system in its favor, then holding a general election — which will likely be neither free nor fair — only for the purpose of making the junta look like an elected government.

However, it should be noted that people in Myanmar have understood over the past decade what freedom means to them. Their living standards also have improved.

Japan should look for ways to substantially engage with Myanmar’s democratization process in cooperation with Indonesia and other ASEAN partners, while facilitating Myanmar’s long-term nation-building efforts through measures such as human resources development, economic cooperation, and support for national reconciliation between the central government and armed ethnic minorities in the country.

Takashi Shiraishi

Shiraishi is the chancellor of the Prefectural University of Kumamoto. From 2011 to March 2017, he served as president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, and from 2007 to 2018 he was president of the Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization.