The 20th ASEAN Lecture: How to Think about the Indo-Pacific?

In this seminar, Mr. Bilahari Kausikan shares his perspective on why this new concept developed, how ASEAN ought to view the Indo-Pacific, and how ASEAN should position itself in this nascent strategic concept.


Friday, 16 August 2019 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute organised the 20th ASEAN Lecture entitled, “How to Think about the Indo-Pacific?” The lecture was delivered by veteran Singaporean diplomat and Chairman of the Middle East Institute, Mr Bilahari Kausikan. The lecture drew more than 110 attendees.

Mr Bilahari Kausikan (right) shares his insights on the Indo-Pacific in its various incarnations and how ASEAN should position itself in this nascent strategic concept. Dr Tang Siew Mun moderated the session. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Kausikan prefaced his lecture by emphasising that the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) is neither a strategy nor a workplan; it is merely a perspective that ASEAN offers to participate in the conversation to shape the evolving regional strategic discourse. Hence, the AOIP is best considered in the context of perspectives offered by other stakeholders – like Australia, China, India, and the United States – that are also in the conversation.

Situating the AOIP in the broader context of competing voices is important because it highlights that the “Indo-Pacific” escapes definition. Despite the elusiveness of a single and coherent definition, Mr Kausikan explained that what unites the disparate voices is the consensus that geography is shaped as much by politics as it is by territory, and that the separation of the Indian and Pacific Oceans is artificial. He suggested that an important question to reflect on is whether accepting one country’s definition of the Indo-Pacific necessarily entails accepting or rejecting others.

Mr Kausikan said that no definition of the Indo-Pacific will succeed without ASEAN’s agreement and participation given the regional association’s foothold in Southeast Asia. On that point, he turned to address the varying perspectives offered by other stakeholders, in particular, those of the US and China. Mr Kausikan argued that the US under President Donald Trump is not on the retreat. Rather, Washington’s consistent pursuit of robust competition with Beijing and “peace through strength” suggests that America still has its sights fixed outwards. In this vein, Mr Kausikan suggested that future American presidents are likely to differ from Mr Trump in degree rather than in kind regardless of their political inclinations.

Next, Mr Kausikan emphasised that the Cold War metaphor for the US-China rivalry is flawed because, unlike the autarkic Soviet Union of the Cold War, China today is deeply embedded in US-led global economic networks and supply chains. Thus, a decoupling of both countries is doomed to fail. Therefore, the longer-term problem of the US-China rivalry for ASEAN is how long it will take before both countries realise this fact and pursue a more moderate form of competition to the benefit of all parties.

Beyond the AOIP

While the AOIP appears to be old wine in a new bottle, Mr Kausikan stressed that ASEAN deserves credit for producing the document amidst such difficult circumstances, because the AOIP fulfils ASEAN’s primary goals of preserving unity and reaffirming centrality. However, Mr Kausikan cautioned that the AOIP itself does not represent ASEAN centrality. The document merely gives ASEAN an opportunity to assert and realise its centrality.

Mr Kausikan suggested that ASEAN should embrace such complexities rather than shun or fear them. Indeed, the complexities and uncertainties surrounding the Indo-Pacific are not inherently negative because they provide more options, increase the room for manoeuvre, and afford small and middle powers greater agency. ASEAN needs to adopt a new cast of mind that eschews binary thinking to take advantage of this strategic landscape.

The seminar was very well-attended. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

To view a recording of the lecture, click here.