South-East Asia lies in the centre of the Asia Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions and it is in the interest of the grouping that it leads the shaping of the economic and security architecture of the region, the Asean countries—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore and Thailand—noted in its Indo-Pacific Outlook released on Sunday.
The document is significant as it seems to seek a distance between China and other powers who have unveiled Indo-Pacific strategies, most notably the US.
At the 34th Asean summit in Bangkok, which had as its theme “Advancing Partnership for Sustainability", the Asean leaders also agreed to work together on the region’s economy and security to strengthen their position to face growing US-China tensions. The grouping identified cooperation in e-commerce and logistics infrastructure as key areas for future cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha saying that Asean will need its collective economic strength for bargaining, especially amid trade tensions between the world’s top two economies.
The group has said trade facilitation and logistics infrastructure and services, as well as digital economy and the facilitation of cross-border data flow, are priority areas.
“Deepening economic integration, ensuring financial stability and resilience, as well as strengthening and promoting trade and investment by supporting the implementation of the Asean Economic Community Blueprint 2025 and other free trade agreements, including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)" have also been identified as possible areas of cooperation by Asean’s Indo-Pacific Outlook.
The strategy “is not aimed at creating new mechanisms or replacing existing ones. Rather, it is an outlook intended to enhance Asean’s community building process and to strengthen and give new momentum for existing Asean-led mechanisms to better face challenges and seize opportunities arising from the current and future regional and global environments," it said.
Analysts say that the Asean Indo-Pacific Outlook needs to be seen as a consensus document that emerged after intense debate, given that some members of the grouping are opposed to China’s aggressive rise and its increasing claims over the South China Sea.
There are others who are seen as wary of supporting the US despite Washington being seen as supportive of the Asean in the face of Chinese claims over large sections of the South China Sea.