Think Tank
Indo-Pacific Region: ASEAN Approach vs. Western Strategies
List of speakers

On August 10, the Valdai Club and the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia held an online partnership discussion titled “ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific Region: Trajectories of Cooperation”. In his opening remarks, the moderator of the discussion Yaroslav Lisovolik, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club, called the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) an excellent example of regional integration and asked the participants whether other regional integration projects could borrow ideas from ASEAN, mentioning the Eurasian Union specifically.

Alexander Ivanov, Permanent Representative of Russia to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, raised the problem of the legitimacy the "Indo-Pacific Region" concept, pointing out the uncertainty of its geographical boundaries and its use in the framework of the American strategy to divide the countries of the region into different categories - from allies to pariahs - and to create a system of military alliances in the region. Unlike the Western strategies toward the Indo-Pacific, the vision of ASEAN (ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific) is based on an inclusive approach and on the principles of the UN Charter, which Russia fully shares. At the same time, the diplomat noted that the coincidence of terminology would allow Western politicians to argue that the vision of ASEAN and Western strategies are the same. The West aims to split ASEAN and weaken its central role. He considers such a situation unsafe.

Dino Patti Djalal, Founder of the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia, presented Indonesia's vision on the Indo-Pacific. Confirming that the geographical boundaries of this region cannot be precisely defined, the political scientist pointed out that for his country, the Indo-Pacific is more a strategic than a geographical concept, based on the connections between the oceans and defining the strategic environment of Indonesia. He agreed with Ivanov that the influence of Western concepts, in particular those involving the containment of China and the rejection of inclusiveness, should be considered as a complicating factor.

Natalya Stapran, Director of Multilateral Economic Cooperation and the Special Projects Department of the Ministry of Economic Development of the Russian Federation, compared the concepts of the Indo-Pacific region and the Asia-Pacific region. She noted that Western statements about a free and open Indo-Pacific region are not consistent with economic realities. We are talking about a new geopolitical structure with the aim to isolate China. According to Stapran, Russia does not consider it necessary to artificially change the regional configuration, which does not reflect the real economic development of the region. “We live in an Asia-Pacific reality based on ASEAN mechanisms,” she stressed.

C. Raja Mohan, Director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, defended the Indo-Pacific concept. “Geography is not only what the schoolteacher tells us. The political dimensions of geography are volatile and change depending on the circumstances,” he said. “What is Indo-Pacific? I would answer like this: this is when we link India to the Pacific Ocean, and China to the Indian Ocean.” According to the expert, this situation certainly gives rise to many contradictions, but this is the reality of the region.

Thomas Daniel, Senior Analyst in the Foreign Policy & Security Studies programme at the Institute for Strategic & International Studies (ISIS), Malaysia, focused on the regional role of ASEAN in the region. “Whether we talk about the Asia-Pacific region or the Indo-Pacific region, the role of ASEAN will remain central,” he said, while acknowledging that now the region is under increased influence from the United States and China, and  for the ASEAN it is more difficult to maintain neutrality and independence.

Nguyen Thi Bich Ngoc, Director of the Centre for Foreign Policy and Regional Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, highlighted ASEAN's balancing role in the region. “We are in favour of dialogue and peaceful solutions to problems,” she said. Turning to the possible areas of cooperation between ASEAN and Russia, she noted the commonality of a number of approaches and highlighted several promising areas for interaction. She also said that a free trade agreement with the EAEU could benefit the association.