The 56th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Jakarta reflected the grouping’s resilience amidst transformative geopolitical changes in the Indo-Pacific. Striving for unity and centrality, ASEAN tackled challenges posed by COVID-19, economic slowdown, climate change, and U.S.-China competition. However, internal differences on sensitive issues like Myanmar have tested its credibility.
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The Indo-Pacific region envisages the Indian and Pacific Oceans as a continuum and stands on two central pillars – maritime security and economic development. The public discussions, however, are focused on maritime security, strategy and geopolitics, while economic development has received less attention. This imbalance can be corrected by creating an awareness on how to harness the potential of the region's Blue Economy and its vast resources and opportunities.
Hailed as historic, the new global rules to curb harmful fishing subsidies is a step towards sustainable fishery practices. The negotiated deal, however, is fraught with concerns over overcapacity in fisheries, deep-sea fishing legislations, and blue finance. It may be better for developing countries to formulate their own regulations and set up mechanisms to prevent illegal fishing within their territorial waters – and hold the WTO agreement to its word.
ASEAN centrality is not what it used to be. Covid, post-pandemic economic recovery, the Ukraine crisis and the challenge of China all tested ASEAN capabilities to manage them. It is now up to ASEAN to work out its unity and centrality with a greater sense of responsibility.
The Quad has agreed to launch a satellite-based maritime security initiative to curb illegal fishing by China. India is a global leader in satellite launches, especially in Earth Observation (EO) satellites. The Indo-Pacific nations are looking at the Indian model because it is applicable, economical, and sustainable.
The recently concluded ASEAN-U.S. Summit has raised the bilateral cooperation to a strategic comprehensive partnership. Key areas of cooperation were identified and global health, SDGs, maritime security and connectivity, and the Ukrainian war dominated the dialogue. The meeting is significant in light of the May 24 Quad Summit, where it is important for the US to have its engagement with ASEAN visible.
Since the military coup in Myanmar on February 1, violence and protests have broken out across the country and are continuing. Supported by India and Japan, ASEAN has played a key role, by calling the emergency summit in Jakarta. It has bridged internal gaps and helped navigate the international community to a reconciliation of the crisis. India must continue support to such efforts, which aim for immediate and long-term peace.
Vietnam had a busy 2020, starting with its chairmanship of ASEAN and ending with the signing of RCEP, and a free trade agreement with the EU. All were completed successfully despite the pandemic, which it also handled well. It has revealed Vietnam’s dexterity and confidence, good management and societal control and raised the country’s global profile.
The recently concluded ASEAN and EAS Summit saw Prime Minister Modi highlighting the Indo-Pacific region. That’s because a cohesive, responsive and prosperous ASEAN is seen as vital to India's Indo-Pacific Vision and to Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR). India’s decision to opt out of RCEP, even when all ASEAN member countries are signatories to that agreement, will mark a shift in how India enhances bilateral engagements with ASEAN nations with greater strategic intent.
Now that the India-U.S. 2+2 meeting has ended, Indian officials are preparing for a hectic season of summiteering in November, from the SCO to the BRICS and the G20. All will give India global attention, and help the country prepare its positioning at home and abroad.