The changing politics of regionalism in Asia-Pacific

Recent development in the Asia-Pacific region show how regionalism is a ‘dynamic’ political project rather than merely an institution and rule-based political order

Ahmad-Risky-UmarIn the latest Shangri-La Dialogue, hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, India and other participants embraced Indo-Pacific cooperation as the new platform for regional cooperation in Asia and the Pacific. Coined firstly by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the idea has been crafted for at least a decade but has gained more prominence after China launched the One Belt & One Road initiative in 2013. At the Dialogue, held in Singapore in June 2018, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for greater cooperation between India, Japan, and Indonesia; the need to craft more complex cooperation in the Indian and Pacific Ocean, as well as a new common rule-based order in the region.

Even though this cooperation has yet to be institutionalised at the international level, the idea has undeniably brought geopolitical contestation in the Asia-Pacific region to a new stage. China has reaffirmed its interest in the South China Sea, leading to tension with other states, particularly Australia and the United States. At the same time, India –under Modi’s Look East Policy—has attempted to craft a more comprehensive partnership with Southeast Asian states, for example by upgrading India-Indonesia relations with a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

This rising cooperation, and possible new tensions that involve China and its allies in the region, has put ASEAN –the most institutionalised form of regional cooperation— at the centre of the contestation. With a long-standing non-interference principle to respect its member states’ sovereignty, whilst at the same time advocating peaceful cooperation as a way to resolve conflict, ASEAN has both a strategic but potentially declining role in the new geopolitical map.

Whilst ASEAN was repeatedly mentioned by the state’s delegates in the Shangri-La Dialogue, asserting its central position in managing the regional contestation, it has nonetheless become a passive actor in light of new trans-regional cooperation that is now evolving in the Pacific and Indian Ocean region.

Thus, what does this geopolitical development mean for world politics?

I suggest that the rise of Indo-Pacific cooperation, which has involved growing cooperation between India, Japan, and Australia to challenge China’s Belt & Road Initiative, challenges the theory that regionalism is declining in world politics. Rather, the changing logic of regional cooperation in Asia-Pacific is transforming the ways the member states cooperate in the region.

A decade ago, regional organisations were pivotal in maintaining regional cooperation in Asia and the Pacific.  Several prominent regional organisations developed strong institutional and rules-based frameworks to maintain peace and cooperation in the region (albeit with uneven successes), such as ASEAN in Southeast Asia, SAARC in South Asia, the Gulf Cooperation Council in the Middle East. It mirrored the similar development in other parts of the world that had occurred previously, like the European Union.

However, the rise of China and India, the decline of United States and the so-called ‘liberal ‘international order’, as well as the changes in domestic politics that have seen new populist regimes in Asia and Europe, has given birth to new geopolitical projects that transform the logic of regionalism in world politics.

Consider, for example, the rise of China’s Belt and Road Initiative that aims to become a platform for China-led infrastructural cooperation with other states. Whilst it is not a ‘grand strategy’, in the sense that it is more concerned with an economic and ‘project-based’ cooperation rather than security-oriented and ‘strategic’, it has to some extent attempted to redefine the existing borders of cooperation, which was previously defined by regionalism.

China, for example, has initiated a large number of infrastructural cooperation with Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and other Southeast Asian states, which led to fears over the ‘declining role’ of ASEAN in managing regional cooperation. China has also negotiated a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with ASEAN, along with 5 other extra-regional partners (India, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan).

The rise of China has also sparked responses by India, Japan and Australia, which was materialised in a new complex form of Indo-Pacific Cooperation.

Whilst this development is still limited to the Asia-Pacific region, the pattern has also some potentials to spread into other regions. China has also initiated some cooperations with Eurasian and African States, which the European Union responded to through triangular cooperation between EU, China, and states in the horn of Africa. However, under Donald Trump, the United States’ relationship with its traditional allies in the Atlantic has also weakened, as the latest G7 Summit in Canada showed us.

With this ‘new’ map of geopolitical contestation, the logic of regionalism, which was previously crafted under an institutionalised form of cooperation operating within specific geographical boundaries (‘the region’), has been challenged by a new dynamic and transregional form of cooperation. It is accompanied by the return of geopolitical contestation under a ‘multiplex’ international order. As Amitav Acharya has argued, this new pattern of cooperation has enabled the rise of some contender states to embrace new forms of cooperation to compete with the already-established international institutions.

Thus, it is important to understand regionalism as a ‘dynamic’ political project rather than merely an institution and rule-based political order. The rise of competing geopolitical projects in Asia-Pacific illustrates the dynamics. It challenges the existing form of regionalism with another logic of regional cooperation. We therefore witness the rise of ‘multiple regionalisms’ rather than the decline of such concept in world politics.