As disclosed by Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi last November, Jakarta will be hosting the first Indo-Pacific Infrastructure and Connectivity Forum this year. The Forum will be the manifestation of Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific cooperation concept, which received ASEAN’s backing in the form of an “Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” last June. Indonesia and ASEAN’s formulation is different from the U.S.-Japan Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision. The Forum thus provides a chance for ASEAN to take regional politics, security, and economic development back into its own hands. This is especially crucial considering the ongoing, wide-ranging U.S.-China strategic rivalry in the region.
Primarily begun as an Indonesian concept that focused on three areas of cooperation — maritime security, connectivity and sustainable development — the Indo-Pacific cooperation concept has the potential to become a game-changer for the Southeast Asian bloc. ASEAN is posited as a third force alongside the FOIP bloc (including the United States, Japan, Australia, and India) and China. As such, the Indo-Pacific Infrastructure and Connectivity Forum will be an indicator of the expectations of those within ASEAN and their existing partners outside the Southeast Asian region.
First and foremost, Indonesia is using the Forum as a platform to showcase its leadership in regional affairs. With Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo starting his second and final term, it is apparent that he is walking along his predecessor, former President Yudhoyono, in carving a legacy for himself in Indonesian foreign policy. Such a legacy is centered on gaining international recognition for Indonesia as a significant regional power alongside other extraregional powers such as the United States, China, Japan, India, and others.
In the regional context, the Forum is a clear signal from Jakarta that it is ready to lead ASEAN again, especially after five years of relatively lower-profile involvement in regional affairs as compared to the Yudhoyono administration before 2014. As Anbound Malaysia has pointed out in the past, strong Indonesian leadership in ASEAN’s affairs is one of the two criteria that will strengthen the Southeast Asian bloc as a whole (the other is proactive leadership from the ASEAN secretary-general). But unlike the past, in which the focus has been on the Western Pacific or East Asia, the Jokowi administration is vying for regional power status (with the consent of ASEAN) that will place it along with the U.S., China, India, Japan, and Australia in the cross-region of the Indo-Pacific. By courting the South Pacific island nations, as demonstrated in the Indonesia-South Pacific Forum last March, it is clear that Jakarta’s ambition is to connect both the South Pacific and Indian Ocean via its vast territory of islands in Southeast Asia.
Second, with the adoption of the Outlook on the Indo-Pacific last June, ASEAN is expected to join the Indo-Pacific Infrastructure and Connectivity Forum for its members’ own development needs. With Indonesia leading the way, it will encourage other ASEAN 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 U.S.-led FOIP, ASEAN member states can use the Forum as another platform to obtain financing support from international organizations as well as from these extraregional powers. This may compel external players to participate in this event as they find it useful to work within this ASEAN-centric Forum to realize their agendas in Southeast Asia.
Third, the Forum is set to put extraregional powers into a dilemma in which they have to consider whether they should join such an event, bypass it, or adopt a wait-and-see attitude.
For the FOIP bloc, the Forum presents a different version of the Indo-Pacific concept in which ASEAN centrality features prominently. Several principles of the Jakarta-led Indo-Pacific cooperation concept — namely, openness, transparency, and upholding of international law (rules-based order) — are compatible with those proposed by the United States and its partners within their FOIP vision. Given such congruence, not participating in the Indo-Pacific Infrastructure and Connectivity Forum will make it difficult for the FOIP bloc to secure ASEAN’s support for their own version of the Indo-Pacific vision. In contrast, their participation will enable the FOIP bloc to jointly implement infrastructure and connectivity projects with ASEAN that correspond to the latter’s Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC).
As for China, its dilemma will be more acute due to the use of the “Indo-Pacific” terminology — a term that is popularly associated with the FOIP vision articulated by Washington. But with Indonesia actively pushing for the implementation of its own Indo-Pacific cooperation concept for the whole of ASEAN, not participating will fuel the perception that Beijing is unwilling to act within the concept of ASEAN centrality and more interested in pushing infrastructure and connectivity projects under its own BRI banner. Furthermore, just as Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific cooperation concept has overlapping principles with the FOIP vision, the former also includes principles that are acceptable 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 the concept of ASEAN centrality, recognize 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 in the current strategic rivalry between China and the Washington-led FOIP bloc in the Southeast Asian region. After two years of deliberations on the Indo-Pacific cooperation concept in ASEAN, there is no question that the Jokowi administration will 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.
Karl Lee Chee Leong is Visiting Fellow at Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), National Chengchi University (NCCU) under the Taiwan Fellowship program sponsored by Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China (Taiwan). He is concurrently PhD Candidate at the School of Arts and Social Sciences (SASS), Monash University (Malaysia Campus).
The author is affiliated with Anbound Malaysia, 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.