The original title of ASEAN’s official response on the Indo-Pacific was reportedly the “ASEAN Indo-Pacific Outlook”, which was revised at the eleventh hour to the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” (AOIP). This modification appears ordinary at first glance, but a closer look at the wording reveals the underlying ambivalence that ASEAN and some of its member states might still have with embracing the concept.
While ASEAN’s ability to issue a collective response to the Indo-Pacific concept reveals a degree of coherence within the grouping, the qualified title might suggest that its member states have adopted the AOIP more as an ASEAN common script without altogether internalising it to the same extent. This sense of vacillation is all the more apparent when one recalls that at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue held in early June, barely three weeks before the adoption of the AOIP, no ASEAN defence minister present, except for the defence ministers of Indonesia and the Philippines, mentioned the term “Indo-Pacific”.
What then is next after the adoption of the AOIP given the different degrees of acceptance or reluctance within ASEAN member states with regard to the Indo-Pacific? Although its content is a welcome re-affirmation of ASEAN’s cardinal principles and its pursuit of an open and inclusive regional order, it does not add much that is new to ASEAN’s strategic discourse. By offering an inclusive and cooperative Indo-Pacific narrative, the AOIP may help shield ASEAN member states from having to officially take sides in the unfolding major power rivalry, but practically some are already on their way to making binary choices. Would the AOIP be able to arrest this trend? Moving forward, how ASEAN could give full expression and effect to its AOIP, both internally and externally, remains to be seen and bears watching.