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ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific Priorities

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  • November 10, 2023

    The ASEAN Maritime Outlook (AMO) launched at the 13th ASEAN Maritime Forum in Bali on 1 August 2023 serves as a reference guide to understand regional maritime trends and challenges. Maritime cooperation was one of the key focus areas of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) adopted in June 2019. The AMO seeks to streamline the work of the various institutions under the ASEAN framework to aid in the implementation of the AOIP.

    These include institutional mechanisms like the East Asian Summit (EAS), ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM), ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) and ADMM Plus, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Maritime Forum, ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Environment (AMME), among others.

    Some of the key elements of the AOIP and the AMO are outlined below in the context of ASEAN Indo-Pacific Forum (APIF) which was held for the first time in September 2023.

    ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific

    ASEAN unveiled the AOIP in 2019 in the backdrop of rising geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea. US–China rivalry amplified the importance of Indo-Pacific in geopolitical narrative. ASEAN acknowledged that a stable Indo-Pacific is of vital importance to global peace, security, and prosperity. ASEAN centrality through ASEAN-led mechanisms was emphasised amidst regional geopolitical shifts.

    The AOIP noted that the Indian and Pacific Oceans are the most dynamic regions in the world along with being the major hubs for economic growth. ASEAN envisages developing appropriate cooperation mechanisms with regional and sub-regional mechanisms in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions on specific areas of common interest to complement the relevant initiatives.1

    The AOIP is a significant step as it recognises the integration of the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions and highlights ASEAN’s interests and areas of concern vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific. It emphasises dialogue and cooperation instead of rivalry, the advancement of development and prosperity of all and the importance of the maritime domain in the regional architecture.

    AOIP recognises that Southeast Asia and the larger Indo-Pacific are in constant flux given geopolitical challenges primarily related to maritime issues like unresolved maritime disputes, unsustainable exploitation of maritime resources, and maritime pollution, among others. In order to realise the ASEAN vision on the Indo-Pacific, the AOIP focusses on four priority areas—maritime cooperation; connectivity; UN Sustainable Goals 2030; and economic and other areas of cooperation.2

    Maritime cooperation has been identified as the first goal as countries in Southeast Asia have been grappling with both existing and emerging geopolitical challenges tied to maritime issues. Unresolved maritime disputes pose the risk of potential conflict, while the unsustainable exploitation of maritime resources and pollution have grown as major concerns. ASEAN, therefore, envisages cooperation in line with international law principles, such as resolving disputes peacefully, enhancing maritime safety and security, fostering sustainable resource management, combating transnational crimes, addressing pollution, and promoting marine science collaboration and capacity-building.3

    AOIP's second focus in the Indo-Pacific involves enhancing connectivity in line with Master Plan of ASEAN Connectivity 2025 (MPAC 2025). This was adopted in 2017 at the 28th ASEAN Summit at Vientiane, Lao People’s Democratic Republic. It seeks to promote an integrated, competitive and inclusive region through physical, institutional and people-to-people linkages, guided by ASEAN's vision and the 6th East Asia Summit declaration. This entails prioritising MPAC 2025, leveraging public–private partnerships, and engaging sub-regional frameworks. Initiatives like the Seamless ASEAN Sky, people-to-people connections, and the ASEAN Smart Cities Network address urbanisation challenges while maintaining environmental sustainability.4

    AOIP identified UN SDGs as the third goal. It notes that the SDGs are aligned with ASEAN Community Vision 2025 – adopted at the 27th ASEAN Summit held in 2015 at Kuala Lumpur and the broader EAS vision. ASEAN pledges to align regional development with the SDGs, and flags collaboration with institutions like the ASEAN Center for Sustainable Development Studies.5

    Other possible areas of cooperation flagged include South-South Cooperation, trade facilitation, digital economy, SMEs, science and technology, climate change, active aging, economic integration, Fourth Industrial Revolution, and private sector development.6

    ASEAN Maritime Outlook

    At the 40th ASEAN Summit held on 11 November 2022, the Leaders’ Declaration pledged to mainstream the four priority areas of AOIP noted above.7 The ASEAN Maritime Outlook released on 1 August 2023 serves as a guideline for ASEAN maritime cooperation by building synergy amongst the various institutions and programmes within the framework of ASEAN.

    The AMO is divided into three sections. The first section presents an overview of ASEAN's maritime domain, emphasising its importance and challenges. It positions maritime domain as integral to ASEAN's strategic, economic, political and social landscape, with a significant impact on member nations. Additionally, it highlights the strategic importance of sea lines of communication (SLOCs), especially the Straits of Malacca. It also recognises the role of the maritime domain in intra-regional travel and food security. The AMO also flags concerns relating to marine debris, labour conditions in the fishing industry, piracy, and marine heritage conservation (Coral Triangle).8 9

    There are four objectives of AMO.

    1. To serve as a practical tool to inform ASEAN Leaders, Ministers, Sectoral Bodies, and Partners about maritime cooperation;
    2. Promote common principles based on international law and ASEAN values;
    3. Identify opportunities for technical and financial assistance to enhance member states' maritime capacities; and
    4. Serve as a reference for maritime trends, opportunities and challenges, guiding ASEAN's efforts to avoid duplication and enhance synergy across relevant Sectoral Bodies.

    AMO highlights principles like openness, transparency, inclusivity, a rules-based framework, good governance, respect for sovereignty, non-intervention, complementing with existing international and regional frameworks. It also promotes ASEAN Centrality as the underlying principle for promoting cooperation in the maritime domain.10

    The second section discusses the state of maritime cooperation in ASEAN, highlighting key actors and processes across three main pillars:

    1. ASEAN Political-Security Community;
    2. ASEAN Economic Community; and
    3. ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community.

    It details the initiatives undertaken by these institutions and includes extensive annexes listing related documents and activities. There are also extensive annexes which list the maritime–related documents issued, and activities undertaken by ASEAN sectoral bodies, mechanisms, and processes, along with maritime cooperation with external partners based on their practical cooperation areas and respective plans of action.11

    The third section addresses the need for improved coordination in maritime cooperation, suggesting the establishment of an overarching framework to oversee cross-pillar and cross-sectoral issues. It emphasises the role of the Lead Sectoral Body (LSB) for Maritime Cooperation, promoting better coordination and communication among sector-specific bodies and mechanisms. Bodies and mechanisms like the ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting (ASEAN SOM) and ASEAN Maritime Forum (AMF) are especially discussed as key institutional decision-making mechanisms for enabling coordination among ASEAN mechanisms when working on maritime domain. However, the relationship between AMF and ASEAN SOM within the LSB context is yet to be defined. 12

    The document underscores the importance of implementing and streamlining the AOIP and engaging with external partners for identified projects. It identifies blue economy as a major area of evolving cooperation. It also outlines emerging maritime issues like marine debris, piracy, environmental impacts of maritime transport, irregular migration, cyberattacks, offshore mining, illegal fishing, and offshore renewable energy.

    AMO concludes by echoing its role as a practical tool to capture the breadth and dynamics of maritime issues within ASEAN. It stresses its intent to enhance coordination and avoid duplication across different bodies within the ASEAN framework and partner countries without overruling their decision-making powers.13

    ASEAN Indo-Pacific Forum

    ASEAN Indo-Pacific Forum (AIPF) took place for the first time in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 5–6 September 2023. The Forum aimed to build stronger and more inclusive cooperation and collaboration between ASEAN Member States and partners in the Indo-Pacific region, leading to establishment of ASEAN as an epicentre of growth. The AIPF also served as a platform for public, state-owned enterprises, and private sectors of ASEAN Member States, and ASEAN’s external partners to engage in constructive discussions, cooperate on concrete projects, and enhance collaboration in the Indo-Pacific region.14

    The AIPF focused on four issues of common interest, namely, green infrastructure; resilient supply chains; digital transformation and creative economy; as well as sustainable and innovative financing. It highlights the need to implement the AOIP and aims to make the Indo-Pacific region more integrated and interconnected through inclusive collaboration.15

    This is seen as another push from ASEAN nations to see Indo-Pacific as a domain of cooperation and not competition without polarising or isolating any particular nation. However, this got overshadowed, like many other developments and agendas with this year’s ASEAN Summit, where the dominant topic was the South China Sea dispute, the situation in Myanmar, among other issues.


    Both AMO and AIPF have emphasised cooperation over competition in the Indo-Pacific. While AMO focuses on coordinating efforts in the maritime domain within ASEAN and partner states, AIPF, on the other hand, expands cooperation to include private sector and state-owned enterprises in implementing AOIP, which includes the maritime domain. These initiatives have the potential to address pressing maritime concerns like transnational organised crime, piracy, IUU fishing and resource sustainability. These policy documents reflect ASEAN's growing cohesion to address common challenges in the maritime domain.

    While there is a defining push towards the notion of ASEAN centrality, there are challenges ahead, as evidenced by recent ASEAN Summit events. These challenges include the South China Sea dispute, which has witnessed an increase in tensions with recent face-off between the Philippines and China, the junta rule in Myanmar and rising US–China rivalry.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.