In early August, Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi told the 8th ministerial meeting of the East Asia Summit in Singapore that Indonesia had its own vision and concept of the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR).
The importance of this step is hard to overestimate. For a decade, the ASEAN countries refused to recognize the IPR’s right to exist for fear that the new geopolitical construct would pull down the habitual and familiar Asia Pacific Region (APR), where ASEAN has staked out one of the leading roles. The decision taken by Indonesia, a nation aspiring to establish itself as the unofficial leader of ASEAN, means that one of the staunchest opponents of the Indo-Pacific idea has defected to the camp of its supporters and is likely to be followed by others. This was not a spontaneous move. The last few months saw Indonesian foreign policy officials repeatedly hint at the coming changes, but Singapore was where the relatively fleshed out concept was finally unveiled.
So, what is Indonesia’s outlook on IPR? According to Marsudi, cooperation can be strengthened without creating a new mechanism or replacing the existing one. ASEAN should play the principal role in the Indo-Pacific Region, as it did in the APR, on issues of maritime cooperation, connectivity and sustainable development, respect for international law, and, most importantly, openness to everyone who would care to join.
This concept is akin to other Indo-Pacific concepts, primarily India’s. Aspiring to domination in the Indian Ocean, India sees ASEAN as a promising partner in the east, one controlling the Malay Barrier, that is, the entire Indo-Pacific axis, and the adjacent seas. The Indian-Indonesian concept is open to all other visions conceived by regional players from Australia to Japan. But it would not include the US vision: neither Indian nor Indonesian IPR says anything about the need to develop the huge maritime expanses east of the Malay Barrier, the Philippines and Japan. Their Indo-Pacific project will possibly find room for Polynesia and Micronesia, but its eastern border dissolves into the sea beyond these, failing to reach the western coast of both Americas.
This detail is very important. As envisaged by India and ASEAN, the Indo-Pacific Region includes one and a half rather than two oceans, namely, the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific, which encompasses the Asian coast of Eurasia, including Russia’s Primorye Territory. This IPR version complements, not contradicts, the Greater Eurasia project, one of Russia’s most ambitious foreign policy constructs. In the greater scheme of things, the Indo-Pacific expands Greater Eurasia to the southeast, reaching all the way to Australia and New Zealand and adding more trade routes that increase rather than reduce regional connectivity. How these constructs correlate will be a key topic at the Changing Asia in a Changing World conference that the Valdai Club and the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia are organizing in Kuala Lumpur on November 21-22.
There are certain apprehensions over the position taken by China, which, like ASEAN until recently, has stubbornly denied the Indo-Pacific’s right to exist. Beijing is primarily motivated by fear that the US will boost its influence in the region and start imposing its vision of the IPR on other countries, and that the unofficial Quad alliance, which Beijing justly believes is spearheaded against China, will further consolidate and expand. But, as demonstrated by ASEAN’s example, the best chance to avoid the negative effects of someone else’s model is to suggest a model that is superior to what your rivals are offering. It cannot be ruled out that the PRC will soon take this step by putting forward a vision of the IPR that will promise more benefits for itself.
Russia should not bring up the rear in this conceptual race. It was all too frequent that Moscow came late and had to adapt to someone else’s concepts and to find a place for itself. As the Indo-Pacific is still in the making, it is important not to miss our chance and to show ourselves ready to work together with countries in Northeast, Southeast, and South Asia in any format, including the IPR.