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International relations

ASEAN crafts position on US 'Free and Open Indo-Pacific' strategy

Foreign ministers seek to ensure 10-member group is not marginalized

SINGAPORE (Kyodo) -- Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are working to come up with a common position on a geopolitical framework for the Indo-Pacific, a term widely used recently in place of Asia-Pacific, to ensure that the 10-member grouping is not marginalized, ASEAN officials said Wednesday.

The position, based on a paper circulated by Indonesia to the nine other ASEAN countries, will be adopted when the ASEAN foreign ministers gather for a three-day meeting in Singapore starting Thursday.

It is apparently in response to the launching by the United States of its own concept of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative, which was made at a business forum in Washington on Tuesday.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be discussing the U.S. concept when he visits Singapore this week to attend the ASEAN Regional Forum on security, the East Asia Summit ministerial meeting and the U.S.-ASEAN ministerial meeting.

He will also specifically discuss it with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi when he visits Jakarta on Saturday, after the series of ASEAN-related meetings.

According to a draft of a joint communique that ASEAN foreign ministers will issue in Singapore, the ministers "looked forward to further discussion on the Indo-Pacific concept and reaffirmed the need to reinforce an ASEAN-centric regional architecture that is open, transparent, inclusive and rules based."

The ministers stressed in the draft, however, that such cooperation should be based on "ASEAN centrality."

"The principle of ASEAN's centrality is the one that moved Indonesia to start preparing or selling the Indo-Pacific cooperation concept," Retno told Indonesian reporters.

"I told my ASEAN colleagues that it will be wrong if people talk about the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean -- where ASEAN is located exactly in the middle of the two -- and ASEAN keeps silent," she said.

In the past 50 years, she said, "ASEAN's existence has never threated others" because the group always prioritized "inclusiveness, cooperation and habit of dialogue."

"We don't have any tradition of confronting others and this is an extraordinary power (we have). Instead, we, ASEAN, want to transmit the value of dialogue, the habit of dialogue to ASEAN's dialogue partners," she said.

Retno stressed, however, that although Indonesia initiated the concept, "we are open for any inputs from any countries."

The term "Indo-Pacific," having been promoted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe since 2007 when he initiated a quadrilateral security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the United States, has grown in usage over the past few years.

Amid China's rising presence in the South China Sea and East China Sea, and the Indian Ocean, some political analysts view the Indo-Pacific concept an attempt to move the focus away from China, which is making a huge push to become the dominant commercial power through its $900 billion One Belt, One Road initiative, to emphasize India and Indian Ocean countries.

The initiative by China to recreate the old Silk Road trading routes between Asia and the rest of the world, first outlined by China's President Xi Jinping in 2013, involves massive Chinese investment in power, transport and infrastructure construction throughout much of the Indo-Pacific region.

At Tuesday's business forum in Washington, U.S. government officials announced $113.5 million in immediate funding to seed new strategic initiatives in the Indo-Pacific region that it said are aimed at accelerating U.S. private sector involvement in the region and supporting more U.S. export opportunities.

An ASEAN source said initiatives such as the Free and Open Indo-Pacific "will have an impact on ASEAN's political and economic development, so ASEAN must seek to be consulted and involved."

"This is especially so as FOIP and BRI (China's Belt and Road Initiative) are promoted by major powers which see ASEAN region as critical to the success of these initiatives," the source added.

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