By Anbound Malaysia*
As disclosed by Indonesian foreign minister, Retno Marsudi last November, Jakarta will be hosting the first ever Indo-Pacific Infrastructure and Connectivity Forum somewhere this year. Different from the US-Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision, the Forum will be the manifestation of Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific cooperation concept that had received ASEAN’s backing in the form of Outlook on the Indo-Pacific last June. More than that, the Forum provided a chance for ASEAN to re-take the whole affairs of regional politics, security and economic development into its own hands. This is especially crucial in consideration of the ongoing US-China strategic rivalry in the region, be it economic, security or political.
Primarily started as an Indonesian concept that focused on the three areas of cooperation such as maritime security, connectivity and sustainable development, the Indo-Pacific cooperation concept has the potential to become the game-changer for the Southeast Asian bloc as it posited ASEAN as the third force alongside the FOIP bloc (US, Japan, Australia and India) and China. As such, the Indo-Pacific Infrastructure and Connectivity Forum will be an indicator of the expectations from those within ASEAN and their existing partners outside of the Southeast Asian region.
First and foremost, Indonesia is utilising the Indo-Pacific Infrastructure and Connectivity Forum as a platform to showcase its leadership in regional affairs. This is not hard to understand to begin with. With President Jokowi starting his second and therefore, his last term of presidency in the Southeast Asian nation, it is apparent that he is walking along his predecessor, former President Yudhoyono, in carving a legacy for himself in the Indonesian foreign policy. By all means, such legacy is centred on gaining international recognition for Indonesia as a significant regional power alongside other extra-regional powers such as the US, China, Japan, India and so forth.
At the regional context, the Forum is a clear signal from Jakarta that it is ready to lead ASEAN into a collective power again, especially after 5 years of relatively lower-profile involvements in regional affairs as compared to the Yudhoyono administration before 2014. As Anbound Malaysia has pointed out in the past, a strong Indonesian leadership in ASEAN’s affairs is one of the two criteria (the other is proactive leadership from ASEAN Secretary-General) that will strengthen the Southeast Asian bloc as a whole. But unlike the past in which the focus has been on the Western Pacific or East Asia, the Jokowi administration is vying for the regional power status (with the consent of ASEAN) that will place it along with the US, China, India, Japan and Australia in the cross-region of Indo-Pacific. By courting the South Pacific island nations as demonstrated in the Indonesia-South Pacific Forum last March, it is crystal clear that Jakarta’s ambition is to connect both South Pacific and Indian Ocean via its vast territory of islands in Southeast Asia.
Second, with the adoption of Outlook on the Indo-Pacific last June, ASEAN is expected to join the Indo-Pacific Infrastructure and Connectivity Forum for their own development needs. With Indonesia leading the way, it will encourage other ASEAN fellow member states, especially the maritime states of Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore, to use this Forum to bypass the strategic rivalry between Beijing and the Washington-led FOIP bloc. Instead of placing heavy dependence on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the US-led FOIP, ASEAN member states can now use the Forum as another platform to obtain financing support from international organisations as well as from these extra-regional powers which may compel to participate in this event as they find it useful to work within this ASEAN-centric Forum to realise their agendas in Southeast Asia.
Third, the Forum is set to put extra-regional powers into a dilemma in which they have to consider as to whether they should join such event, bypass it or adopt a wait-and-see attitude for a certain period before deciding. This is to be viewed from two camps. For the FOIP bloc, they have now been presented with a different version of the Indo-Pacific concept in which ASEAN centrality featured prominently in the Forum. No doubt, such situation is a stark difference than the FOIP vision in which Washington and its bloc members are envisaging for the Indo-Pacific region.
That said, several principles of the Jakarta-led Indo-Pacific cooperation concept, namely, openness, transparency and upholding of international law (rules-based order), are completely compatible with those proposed by the US and its partners within their FOIP vision. Given such congruence, not participating in the Indo-Pacific Infrastructure and Connectivity Forum will render the FOIP bloc difficult to secure ASEAN’s support for their own version of Indo-Pacific vision. In contrast, their participation will enable the FOIP bloc to jointly implement infrastructure and connectivity projects with ASEAN that corresponded to the latter’s Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC).
As for China, its dilemma will be higher due to the use of ‘Indo-Pacific’ terminology ⸺ a term that is popularly associated with the FOIP vision articulated by Washington and its other Indo-Pacific member states. But with Indonesia actively pushing for the implementation of its Indo-Pacific cooperation concept for the whole of ASEAN, not participating it will fuel the perception that Beijing is unwilling to act within ASEAN centrality and more interested to push infrastructure and connectivity projects under its own BRI banner. Furthermore, just like Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific cooperation concept has overlapping principles with the FOIP vision, the former also includes principles that are absolutely compatible to Beijing such as dialogue, cooperation and friendship. In consideration of these factors, China’s participation in the Forum will show that it is willing to act within ASEAN centrality, recognise its similarities with the Southeast Asian bloc and implement cooperation projects for mutual benefits.
All in all, the Indo-Pacific Infrastructure and Connectivity Forum will be a huge event this year that has the potential to be a game-changer to the current strategic rivalry between China and the Washington-led FOIP bloc in the Southeast Asian region. After 2 years of deliberations on the Indo-Pacific cooperation concept in ASEAN, there is no question that the Jokowi administration will incessantly push for its own version of Indo-Pacific cooperation that has now been adopted by the whole of ASEAN. Given Jakarta’s hosting of the high-level Forum this year, analysts and pundits should start taking Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific push seriously.
*Anbound Malaysia is part of Anbound China, a leading independent think tank based in Beijing. The think tank is also a consultancy firm working with the corporate players in China-ASEAN cooperation. For any feedback, please contact: [email protected]