THE past few years have seen the Indo-Pacific concept articulated all around the globe.
The United States, Japan and India have each promoted their own Indo-Pacific strategy — though none were able to stipulate their ideas in detail.
United States President Donald Trump has expressed “a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
The phrase is still interpreted loosely as none has been able to define “free of what” and “open to whom”. Especially as this has come at a time when the US is being challenged by many for its protectionism. The effects of trade wars are imminent.
Yet, despite used frequently by Trump, the US is actually not the first to use this phrase.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had promoted the idea since his first tenure in 2007, and later coined the term in 2016.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has broadened the term, stating at an IISS (The International Institute for Strategic Studies) Asia Security Summit that the Indo-Pacific should include all geographical nations as well as other countries that have stakes in the region — meaning that all may join the Indo-Pacific wagon.
The Indo-Pacific concept has long been seen as an idea to bring South Asia, notably India into the Asia-Pacific equation — in a bid to balance China’s growing influence in the region.
Some have deemed this as a counter to the somewhat unprecedented, yet arguable, success of the Belt and Road Initiative.
But for whatever reason the initial concept of the Indo-Pacific was designed for, it is where it will be headed to that means the most.
Today, in a time when talks are still going back and forth, it is a golden moment for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to take the initiative to lead — allowing no time for external powers to dictate terms to the region.
As Asean members share the same vision for the Indo-Pacific — an open and inclusive region — the organisation should promote the importance of growing trade and investment in the region.
Many compare the Indo-Pacific to its older sibling — the Asia Pacific — especially as the development of both concepts is striking in resemblance, promoting stability, security and prosperity in the region.
To further its developments, in 1989, countries in the Asia Pacific established the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec).
Apec was built on the view that an economic regional cooperation is needed to respond to the growing interdependence of Asia-Pacific economies.
Despite many critics, Apec has relatively been able to promote its mission of supporting sustainable economic growth and prosperity in the region.
By 2015, Apec claimed that since its establishment, it had multiplied total trade between its members by 6.7 times and has helped reduce trade barriers — as average tariffs of 17 per cent fell to 5.6 per cent.
This is further affirmed as economic growth has risen significantly in the region, from US$19 trillion (RM78.7 trillion) of gross domestic product (GDP) in 1989 to US$42 trillion in 2015.
The question is, should there be an Indo-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Ipec)?
There are a few reasons why Asean should consider initiating Ipec.
First, if it can be established swiftly, Ipec can be the first official Indo-Pacific cooperation.
This means that any usage of the Indo-Pacific term will be automatically and subconsciously tied to Ipec — further dictating future discussion on the Indo-Pacific into an economic one.
This will also shift any possibilities of an exclusive security alliance Indo-Pacific based on the Quad (the US, Japan, India and Australia) into an inclusive economic cooperation. This is in line with Asean’s concept of focusing on cooperation for the prosperity of the region.
Second, through the establishment of Ipec, the region will be able to reach its maximum inclusiveness.
Ipec will be able to refer members as economies — affirming the participation of more entities. This is the foundation on how Apec has been built and will definitely answer Asean’s idea of an open, transparent and inclusive cooperation.
Third, the establishment of Apec was first inspired by the success of Asean’s post-ministerial conferences.
Yet the principle of Asean centrality in Apec still remains dim, as well as the role of Asean in leading the region. Apec has largely been dominated by other large economies — putting Asean members as more of a participant rather than a leader.
Thus initiating Ipec will provide the opportunity for Asean to reinvigorate and revive its role in its neighbourhood.
Yet even if Ipec is to be established, a larger question remains to be answered: what kind of model should Ipec be built upon?
Adding another regional forum to an array of cooperation in the region may have the potential to worsen the “noodlebowl” effect, a situation where too many overlapping cooperations get countries tangled into complicated situations.
The East Asia Summit has been used as a platform for discussions on the Indo-Pacific cooperation, yet a regional economic cooperation based on a convention will still be ideal for tangible developments of the region.
Some may argue that admitting India’s proposal to join the Apec will do the job. But one must not see the Indo-Pacific concept as an Apec + India.
Despite the ongoing debate, sooner or later a cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region will be established. The question is not when but what will be developed. Sitting centrally in the Indo-Pacific region, Asean has yet to play a central role.
It is time for Asean to seize the opportunity and together drive the development of the Indo-Pacific.
We should be the ones to initiate cooperation in the region. The development of Ipec should now be discussed as it will benefit the whole region.
And never will there be a better time than now.
Foreign Service Officer Ministry of Foreign Affairs Republic of Indonesia