Webinar on “ASEAN and the New Geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific”

In this webinar, Professor Amitav Acharya examined how the “new geopolitics” differs from previous escalations of great power rivalry, especially during the Cold War period.


Tuesday, 30 November 2021 — The strategic rivalry between the United States and China has prompted concerns about the “return of geopolitics” to Southeast Asia. Professor Amitav Acharya discussed how these emerging trends affect ASEAN and how the organisation should respond in an ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute webinar on “ASEAN and the New Geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific”. An eminent expert of the region’s international politics, Professor Acharya Amitav Acharya is a Distinguished Professor of International Relations at the School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC and Chair of the School’s ASEAN Studies Initiative.

Professor Amitav Acharya observed that the current geopolitics is less ideological in nature. With Ms Sharon Seah as moderator of this webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

For Professor Acharya, the “new geopolitics” is, properly speaking, not the return of the traditional great power rivalry that had previously embroiled the region. For one, Southeast Asia is unlikely to benefit from the new geopolitics, as it did during the Cold War. The Cold War not only galvanised the five original members of ASEAN around a “common purpose” of rejecting communism, but also offered stability as the United States extended its security umbrella to the region. The Cold War also stimulated economic growth as Japanese investment and trade poured into the region.

In contrast, the new geopolitics poses considerable strategic challenges to Southeast Asia and ASEAN. China has grown into a major economic and military power, with extensive trade relations with all Asian economies. Also, unlike the Soviet Union, China is deeply integrated into the global economy, and is also “breathing down ASEAN’s neck” by virtue of its geographical proximity. Furthermore, Japan is no longer as significant — its relative influence (both vis-à-vis China and its previous economic clout in the region) has declined.

Additionally, Professor Acharya observed that the current geopolitics is also less ideological. While the Soviet Union was intent on exporting communism against the market democracy of the US-led bloc, China does not appear to have similar aspirations. The absence of an ideological contestation between the United States and China however means that this new geopolitics  becomes more of a military-strategic confrontation.

More significantly, ASEAN’s capacity to offer a “collective diplomatic response” to this new geopolitics is coming under strain. During the Cold War, ASEAN had a common purpose and was able to develop a security architecture (through instruments such as the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality, or ZOPFAN) to manage the great power rivalry and insulate the region from adverse geopolitical effects. Now, however, the grouping lacks the same sense of purpose and unity, even with ASEAN Centrality serving as a central organising framework.

Professor Acharya elaborated on other crucial elements of the new geopolitics. He highlighted the “three asymmetries” of distance, time, and stakes that diminishes American military advantage over China in the broader East Asian region. The region, which is in China’s backyard, is separated from the US mainland by a vast ocean. This consequently affects how rapidly the United States can deploy its military forces to the area. China’s efforts to enhance its anti-access and area denial capabilities in its surrounding waters also compounds the United States’ deployment challenges.

Moreover, doubts remain about the United States’ commitment to the region, especially given its isolationist streaks (most recently evinced under the Trump administration). As long as uncertainty about whether the United States can be counted on to defend East and Southeast Asia is not resolved, it will become increasingly tempting for regional countries to pursue the practical option of bandwagoning with China.

Professor Acharya also discussed how the new AUKUS (Australia-United Kingdom-United States) alliance would boost Australia’s submarine capabilities, addressing the United States’ concern about submarine warfare with China. He also described the Quad as a mechanism to expand American access in the region, while noting that the quartet’s defence spending collectively is around four times of China’s.

Professor Acharya suggested that ASEAN should adopt a more “strategic” approach to the new geopolitics. He argued that the current “normative” approach of not taking sides and engaging all the great powers (through mechanisms such as the various ASEAN Dialogue Partnerships, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the East Asia Summit) may be “too soft” and leave ASEAN to be “taken for granted”. For Professor Acharya, the reality of the new geopolitics significantly undercuts ASEAN Centrality: external partners have not seriously consulted ASEAN before proceeding with major initiatives affecting the region, with ASEAN being reactive rather than proactive — as in the case of its response to the Indo-Pacific discourse.

Responding strategically entails ASEAN adopting a “long-term, purposeful, directed, [and] overarching” plan to manage the great power rivalry. This entails focussing on the security of the region itself (rather than other areas such as the Korean peninsula). Professor Acharya also advocated for ASEAN to introduce the “responsibility to consult” as a norm requiring external partners to meaningfully engage with ASEAN on any new major initiatives. Additionally, he would welcome a move to formalise the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific into a declaration or agreement to reflect its prominence in the regional architecture.

He also recommended reviving certain elements of ZOPFAN to provide the regional security framework with “more teeth”. In particular, ASEAN should encourage the implementation of confidence-building measures, such as disclosure requirements for weapon deployments and military exercises and establishing rules of engagement and crisis management. He also advised ASEAN to develop a common position on economic issues that have political and security implications, enabling the region to better deal with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the United States’ newly-floated plan for an economic framework for the Indo-Pacific.

Professor Acharya concluded by emphasizing the need for the region to reclaim and “change the narrative” on the Indo-Pacific. Currently, the Indo-Pacific operates narrowly as a “strategic framework”, reflecting its origins as an idea of strategic thinkers and policy-makers from outside the region. However, the region can foster alternative conceptions of the Indo-Pacific by resurrecting its cultural history, including the classical idea of Indian Ocean characterised by an “open”, “rules-based” and “non-hegemonic architecture”. Citing the example of the Undang-Undang Melaka (the Law of Melaka), a compilation of the Melaka sultanate’s legal rules (including its maritime and trading regulations), Professor Acharya observed that regional polities of the past did not seek to restrict trade or extend their jurisdiction into their adjacent waters, instead treating the sea as an open space. Such ideas can thus be revived to add a distinctively Southeast Asian historical-cultural flavour to our understanding of the Indo-Pacific.

During the Q&A session, Professor Acharya addressed issues pertaining to the extent of ASEAN’s capacity to influence or determine the region’s security architecture, ASEAN’s prospects and its ability to maintain its resilience and relevance in the future, the viability of ASEAN’s closer engagement with the Quad, the role of middle-power countries within and without the region to respond and shape the new geopolitics, and the possibility of more geopolitical instability in the coming decade due to heightened Chinese military aggression. Over 150 participants attended the webinar.