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Indonesia Must Lead in the Indo-Pacific Region
By Beginda Pakpahan

The notion of the Indo-Pacific region has experienced a contemporary revival and is now mentioned frequently in the capitals of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and elsewhere. In its simplest terms, the Indo-Pacific region covers the Pacific and Indian oceans. In recent years, China has introduced and promoted its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a grand infrastructure project spanning these same oceans. The United States, Japan, India and Australia, meanwhile, have revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as a coalition that could pose a challenge to China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific region. In this essay, I focus on two crucial questions: First, what are the main positions of the parties in the Indo-Pacific region? Second, what are Indonesia’s views about preserving and strengthening a peaceful and stable Indo-Pacific region?


Defining the Indo-Pacific Region


The contemporary use of the term Indo-Pacific refers to an interlinked and interconnected region between the Asia-Pacific, South Asia and Africa. In 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe first promoted Japan’s policy on the Indo-Pacific region on a visit to India. He encouraged New Delhi to work together with Tokyo in the Pacific and Indian oceans to achieve a free and open Indo-Pacific.


In 2008, the Chinese navy first conducted anti-piracy patrols in the Indo-Pacific region. And in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative, with a total value of around $124 billion, which is mainly aimed at promoting major infrastructure projects for countries in the Indo-Pacific region and stretches as far as Africa and Europe. Elsewhere, China and Djibouti in 2017 agreed to the establishment of a Chinese naval base there, Beijing’s first foreign military installation. And finally, China and Pakistan this year agreed to the establishment of a collective naval port in Gwadar, Pakistan (Smith, 2018).


China has also funded infrastructure projects in several countries across the Indian Ocean, such as seaports in Colombo and Hambantota, Sri Lanka. In addition, Beijing recently deepened its economic cooperation with the Maldives by signing a free trade agreement and acquiring land for a Chinese trading post in the Indian Ocean (Mourdokoutas, 2018).


For its part, India is carefully monitoring the presence of China in the Indian Ocean because of economic and geopolitical factors. On the economic front, India does not want to be flooded by Chinese goods, which could come from the Maldives, which has free trade agreements with both India and China. On the geopolitical front, India is wary of China’s actions in the Indian Ocean, because Beijing could transform its seaports in Sri Lanka and the Maldives into military posts (Mourdokoutas, 2018).


In order to respond to these developments, US President Donald Trump in November 2017 persuaded Japan, Australia and India to establish the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which is aimed at creating a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (Financial Express, 2017). The four countries later agreed to establish a joint regional infrastructure project for the region in February 2018 (Reuters, 2018). Previously, Japan released its new overseas development assistance (ODA) policy, which will support high quality infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific region. A free and open Indo-Pacific strategy is one of the priority policies for development cooperation at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2017). Japan and Australia view their joint regional infrastructure projects as an alternative to China’s BRI (Reuters, 2018). In sum, the Quadrilateral coalition has created an alternative to the BRI for the Indo-Pacific region. However, there are various free and open Indo-Pacific strategies that have been promoted by Japan and the US as the main players at the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, in a speech at Columbia University on Sept. 21, 2017, promoted Japan’s concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific, which would link Africa, Asia and North America into an inter-connected region. He further argued that Japan, the US, India and Australia wanted to develop a free and open maritime order based on the rule of law in order to spur economic development and strengthen connectivity by developing and improving infrastructure from seaports to roads in countries around the region (Hosoya, 2018).


On Jan. 22, 2018, the foreign minister explained to Japanese lawmakers that the Indo-Pacific region is crucial for world development because more than half of the planet’s population live in the region. From Japan’s perspective, a free and open maritime order in the Indo-Pacific region must be preserved and strengthened by all countries, because it will create a stable and prosperous region. Yuichi Hosoya, a professor of international politics at Keio University, has distilled Foreign Minister Kono’s arguments into the three foundations of Japan’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy as follows: freedom of navigation and the rule of law; connectivity; and capacity building (Hosoya, 2018).


More specifically, in a lecture at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta on March 21, Mie Oba, a professor at Tokyo University of Science, argued that Japan’s policy on the Indo-Pacific consists of the following components: improving strategic connections among major powers (the US, Japan, India and Australia); making economic development and connectivity among countries in the Pacific and Indian oceans a priority; and preserving a rules-based order in the region based on international norms and values (Oba, 2018).


From the perspective of the US, Alex N. Wong, deputy assistant secretary at the US State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, described the US strategy for a free and open Indo-Pacific at a special briefing on April 2, 2018. He argued that all nations in the region should be free from coercion from any parties. They should be able to select their respective paths in a sovereign manner, and should consider themselves free in terms of transparency, good governance and fundamental rights. Moreover, he said, the US believes in open sea lines and airways, open logistics and infrastructure and open trade and investment in order to support economic growth and foster development in the Indo-Pacific region. The US has thus expanded its terminology for referring to the region from the Asia Pacific to the Indo-Pacific, first because India plays an important role in South and East Asia and the Pacific region, and second, because the US sees India as an influential player in safeguarding its interests in the Indo-Pacific region (US Department of State, 2018).


In a speech at a US Chamber of Commerce Indo-Pacific Business Forum in Washington DC on July 30, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued that the United States would build partnerships with countries in the Indo-Pacific region and would not dominate the region. It would establish mutual co-operation with countries in a free and open Indo-Pacific. He further elaborated that the US would invest US$113 million in various areas of co-operation for countries around the Indo-Pacific region, such as energy, digital economy, cybersecurity and infrastructure projects (McCarthy, 2018).


The situation above demonstrates that relations between China and the Quadrilateral coalition are both cooperative and competitive. On one side, there is major power competition in the Indo-Pacific region. The Quadrilateral coalition challenges China’s sphere of influence in the Pacific and Indian oceans. On the other side, the Quadrilateral coalition will be an alternative for regional infrastructure projects in the region. Add to this the trade war between the US and China, where both sides are slapping tariffs on imports from the other (BBC, 2018), and the atmosphere of competition is evident. There is also a trust deficit and unstable ties among countries in the Indo-Pacific region. All in all, major power competition in the Indo-Pacific region could intentionally, or accidentally, lead to a war, if not properly contained.


As a result, the Indo-Pacific region has become a crucial focus of academic and public discourse in ASEAN capitals. In Jakarta, policymakers, international relations experts and even journalists have piled into the debate. The next question: what is Indonesia’s position on the Indo-Pacific region?


Indonesia and ASEAN’s Role in the Indo-Pacific Region


At a conference on Indonesia by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on May 16, 2013, former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa (2013) elaborated on his views of the Indo-Pacific region. He proposed an Indo-Pacific-wide treaty of friendship and cooperation that incorporated commitments to build confidence, solve disputes peacefully and promote a security concept as a collective good.


Five years later, current Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi proposed an Indo-Pacific framework at the ASEAN-India Summit in January 2018 and the Australia-ASEAN Summit in March 2018. I argue that Indonesia must preserve its free and active foreign policy at the center of major power cooperation and competition. This means that Indonesia and ASEAN should employ what I call an axis of symmetrical interests, by managing its relations with external partners in the Pacific and Indian oceans. As I previously argued in an article in the East Asia Forum in 2012, Indonesia and “ASEAN may use the axis of symmetrical interests, by balancing regional and global interests when negotiating with and relating to external parties. Regional organizations such as ASEAN can serve as a focal point for inter-regional cooperation based on mutual benefits. ASEAN can strengthen its position as a regional stabilizer between the Southeast and the East Asian regions in order to create balance and synergy among actors — including the US and China. ASEAN can help drive regional forums such as the ARF [ASEAN Regional Forum] and the EAS [East Asia Summit] in order to develop dependability of action within the political and economic cooperation between ASEAN and its external partners.”


Consequently, Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific framework should make Indonesia and ASEAN an axis of cooperation based on symmetrical interests within the region. Indonesia, together with its fellow ASEAN members, can preserve peace and security and establish a prosperous region in the Pacific and Indian oceans through positive and inclusive cooperation. Additionally, ASEAN should preserve its unity and centrality to politico-security cooperation and economic partnerships within the Indo-Pacific region through the East Asia Summit (EAS) and possibly other ASEAN-led mechanisms. Indonesia can offer confidence-building measures and mutual cooperation as well as improve consultation and dialogue in the evolving regional architecture in the Pacific and Indian oceans (Marsudi, 2018).


In practice, Indonesia and ASEAN propose bilateral and plurilateral cooperation. These include, among others, the ASEAN-Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and ASEAN-led initiatives such as the EAS and ARF, as modes of engagement among relevant actors to preserve peace and stability in the Pacific and Indian oceans. These cooperative mechanisms are built on a consensus-based approach, a respect for sovereignty, economic prosperity and the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of other countries. These mechanisms would bring many advantages to all countries in the Indo-Pacific region (Purwanto, 2018).


Indonesia and ASEAN should take into account several elements in the establishment of a regional architecture: first, preserving a peaceful and stable situation for all countries to develop their economies; second, decreasing the potential competition and de-escalating tensions among big powers in the Indo-Pacific region; third, creating prosperity and reducing development gaps; fourth, employing consultation and dialogue as modes of engagement to establish partnerships and find solutions to disputes among countries in the region; and fifth, promoting the rule of law and good governance (Marsudi, 2018).


There will be crucial challenges for Indonesia and ASEAN in seeking to establish and manage an Indo-Pacific framework:


To ensure Indonesia and ASEAN member states preserve ASEAN’s position in the driver’s seat of the Indo-Pacific framework. Indonesia should persuade, through diplomacy, all ASEAN member states to stand together on the importance of ASEAN’s centrality and cohesion in ASEAN’s diplomatic actions when it manages major power rivalry and major power hegemonic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. This will positively support and improve ASEAN’s position as a regional stabilizer in the Indo-Pacific region.


To enlarge the coverage of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia to all countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Indonesia and ASEAN can encourage the effective implementation of the declaration of the EAS on the Principles for Mutually Beneficial Relations as guiding principles for inter-state relationships in the Indo-Pacific, as proposed earlier by Natalegawa (2013 and ASEAN Secretariat, 2011). The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation has been ratified and applied by Indonesia, other ASEAN member states and all of ASEAN’s external partners to preserve peace and a stable Southeast Asia and to avoid the use of force to resolve conflicts. There is an open possibility to reform any substantive parts of the treaty and the declaration, or incorporate them into new regional norms, when there is a need to respond to emerging situations.


To have a common vision on, and to manage, collective agendas that are accepted by all parties in the Indo-Pacific region. Indonesia and ASEAN could develop a rules-based regional architecture that could be worked on together and accepted by all countries in the region, such as countries enforcing maritime laws and regulations that are adopted in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas in the Pacific and Indian oceans To empower existing regional forums to intensify substantive dialogue, implementing practical cooperation on maritime, security and economic development issues and building confidence among ASEAN members and all countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Possible areas of cooperation among countries in the region are regional connectivity, infrastructure development, maritime safety, environmental protection, disaster management and combating transnational crimes (for example, terrorism; illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; and illicit drugs).


To create an effective consensus-based approach in order to manage the length of negotiations in an effective and proper way. In addition, the Indo-Pacific framework should have effective mechanisms to de-escalate conflicts and to find peaceful solutions to potential disputes.


To avoid overlapping frameworks of regional and sub-regional initiatives in the Pacific and Indian Oceans by establishing a coherent structure for mutual support among different initiatives. The empowerment of existing regional initiatives could be done by Indonesia and ASEAN. A coordinated network of bilateral cooperation, ASEAN-led mechanisms and regional initiatives outside ASEAN should be proposed and developed by Indonesia and ASEAN through an efficient, flexible and effective institutional connectivity among relevant regional initiatives (for example, the EAS, ASEAN meetings, and ARF in conjunction with IORA summits). The network could possibly coordinate shared agendas based on common interests in ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific region to be discussed, agreed and implemented by these interconnected forums.





ASEAN Secretariat, Declaration of The East Asia Summit on The Principles for Mutually Beneficial Relations’, Bali, Nov. 19, 2011, source:


BBC News, “Markets Edgy on US-China Trade War Fears,” March 23, 2018,


Financial Express “What is India, US, Japan and Australia quadrilateral?” Nov. 13, 2017, source:


Hosoya, Y, “Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy and ASEAN: Towards Safer and More Prosperous Asia,” a presentation for the symposium “ASEAN and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” The Indonesian Institute of Sciences, Jakarta, April 3, 2018.


Marsudi, R, “Indonesia: Partner for peace, security, prosperity,” Jakarta Post, Jan. 11, 2018, source: 01/10/full-text-indonesia-partner-for-peace-security-prosperity.html


McCarthy, T, “Mike Pompeo pledges US ‘partnership not domination’ in ‘IndoPacific’ region,” The Guardian, July 20, 2018, source:


Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Policy Priority for Development Cooperation FY 2017,” International Cooperation Bureau, April 2017, source:


Mourdoukoutas, P, “China wants to turn Indian Ocean into the China Ocean,” Forbes, Feb. 12, 2018, source:


Natalegawa, M, “An Indonesia Perspective on The Indo-Pacific,” speech given at the Conference on Indonesia, CSIS, Washington DC, May 16, 2013.


Pakpahan, B, “ASEAN: regional stabilizer in Southeast and East Asia?” East Asia Forum, Oct. 12, 2012, source: 10/12/asean-regional-stabiliser-in-southeast-and-east-asia/


Pakpahan, B, Indonesia, ASEAN and Uncertainty of International Relations, Jakarta: Kompas Book Publisher, 2018.


Purwanto, H, “Indonesia continues to promote Indo-pacific concept,” Antara, March 19, 2018, source:


Oba, M, “The Transition of Japan’s Regional Policy: From Asia-Pacific, East Asia to Indo-Pacific,” presentation at CSIS, Jakarta, March 21, 2018.


Reuters, “Australia, US, India and Japan in talks to establish Belt and Road Alternative: Report,” Feb. 19, 2018, source:


Smith, JM, “Unpacking the Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” The Heritage Foundation, March 16, 2018, source:


US Department of State, “Briefing on The Indo-Pacific Strategy,” Washington DC, April 2, 2018, source:


Back to Issue
    Despite its reputation as an often useless talking shop, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has, in fact, been central to the creation of a number of significant initiatives aimed at regional integration, drawing in other Asian countries and the United States. As its largest member, Indonesia has played a central role in ASEAN diplomacy. With a renewed focus on the concept of an Indo-Pacific region, Indonesia and its fellow ASEAN members could play an important role in mitigating growing great power rivalry between China and the US, writes Beginda Pakpahan.
    Published: September 2018 (Vol.13 No.3)
    About the author

    Beginda Pakpahan is the author of “Indonesia, ASEAN & Uncertainty of International Relations” (Kompas Book Publisher, 2018), and a political and economic analyst on global affairs at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta. He holds a PhD in Politics and International Relations from the University of Edinburgh, UK.

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