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  • Juhn Chris Espia

ASEAN under Indonesia’s Leadership in a Contested Indo-Pacific: Where does it stand?

Despite the chatter about ASEAN positioning itself as the centre of the Indo-Pacific, the regional organisation has seen internal disunity and external great power competition increasingly sideline it.


Photo credits: ASEAN Secretariat

As Indonesia handed over the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) rotating chairpersonship to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic on September 7, 2023, there was a sense of routine in the way Indonesian President Joko Widodo closed the ceremonies for the 43rd edition of the Summit. While openly declaring that ASEAN will not be pulled into a rivalry by major powers by saying that “ASEAN will not be a proxy to any powers”, for keen watchers of the region, this sounded more rhetorical and aspirational than a policy that ASEAN wants to act on in the near future. How do we assess the immediate aftermath of Indonesia’s recent leadership rotation in the ASEAN?


Indonesia has always been considered as the de facto leader of the region, due to historical-institutional and geopolitical factors. The ASEAN Secretariat was established in Jakarta in 1976 and the first ASEAN Summit was held there in the same year. The ASEAN headquarters was built in Jakarta in 1981 while key agreements and mechanisms such as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) were also done in Indonesia. Aside from these, Indonesia is the largest member based on geographic size and population among ASEAN states. It is an important geographic chokepoint for the Indian and Pacific Oceans, has the largest defense spending, and has the largest active military force in Southeast Asia. However, recent events have exposed the weaknesses of this leadership role.

On the one hand, in the face of doubts about the US commitment in the region, Indonesia has pursued a strategy of soft balancing through defense and maritime infrastructure cooperation with India and Japan. As chair of the ASEAN, Indonesia has sought to reconceptualize ASEAN’s place in the Indo-Pacific’s center. However, domestic politics as much as systemic constraints, would temper Indonesia’s push for consolidating its leadership role in the ASEAN and strengthening the regional architecture as a means of pushing back against major powers. While this was a key campaign platform of Widodo in the 2014 elections, domestic concerns such as relocating the capital from Java to Borneo, student as well as religious protests, and dealing with COVID-19 pandemic diverted a lot of energy away from pressing regional concerns, creating the impression that Indonesia “was leading from behind”. Spurred on by the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’s (known as the Quad) commitment to a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, Indonesia pushed for an Indo-Pacific Cooperation (IPC) framework, which argued for a process characterized by transparency and would prevent the formation of coalitions that will escalate strategic rivalries. It was presented at the 34th ASEAN Summit as the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”, essentially ASEAN’s vision for the Indo-Pacific, which focused strongly on areas of functional cooperation in the maritime domain, climate change and disaster risk reduction, sustainable development, and economic cooperation.


Centrality has always been key to how ASEAN defines itself vis-à-vis great power interaction. It has sought to preserve this centrality through a host of multilateral forums, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS), and other ASEAN-anchored mechanisms. However, the organization struggles to respond to key regional issues, bringing to the fore the question of whether its position of centrality, which means serving as a forum for great power interaction and dialogue, is more of an aspiration rather than the current reality. The ASEAN response on two critical (and perennial issues) have been lacking and are important tests for Indonesia’s leadership. The first is the increasing tension in the South China Sea, where China Coast Guard vessels figured in highly aggressive and dangerous engagements with Philippine supply boats and Vietnamese fishing vessels. The ASEAN has failed to openly support the Philippines when it brought its case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration and has been silent on the issue of steady Chinese encroachment into the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of ASEAN member states. The statement issued on this issue at the 43rd summit echoed the concerns on land reclamation, risky maritime maneuvers, and risky incidents, but fell short of any condemnation. Meanwhile, negotiations on the South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC), which Indonesia has pushed strongly for, have dragged on, lending credence to the view that the negotiations are being used by China to keep the disputant states occupied while continuing with its island reclamation project.


The conflict in Myanmar is another key bone of contention where the ASEAN was seen as ineffectual, but it also damaged its reputation by exposing its inability to impose even a nominal standard of behavior and to no less than a new member state. While many see the conflict as having no major bearing on overall regional security, the view that ASEAN has failed a “litmus test” in Myanmar also persists, despite the organization’s adaptation of stronger language to condemn the actions of the Tatmadaw. Myanmar’s junta famously repudiated the 5-point consensus agreed upon just a week earlier by ASEAN leaders on April 24, 2021. In the 43rd Summit, ASEAN has also agreed to exclude Myanmar from future high-level meetings and its chairmanship in 2026 would be passed on to the Philippines. While this saves the organization from further reputational crisis with a pariah potentially hosting its summits, it also has the potential to further alienate the junta and further narrow down opportunities to influence it externally.


Is ASEAN an organization whose weakening and irrelevance were created by design? Surely, while institutional design, such as favoring dialogue, consensus-building, and non-interference in member states’ internal affairs does create hard limits to what ASEAN can do, the key to understanding how ASEAN has behaved in the last three decades is the perpetual struggle to maintain internal coherence and present a united front. In the face of heightened strategic competition between the US and China, this lack of unity has even become more apparent. For instance, in the Myanmar conflict, while Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines wanted a more outspoken approach, Thailand and Cambodia pushed back against potentially isolating the junta. In an even bigger blow to ASEAN and Indonesia, ASEAN navies had planned to stage a first-of-its-kind naval exercise in the North Natuna Sea, only for it to be moved south at the insistence of Cambodia and Myanmar, both of which have close ties to China. In both cases, the ASEAN response appeared haphazard, all in the name of maintaining consensus.


Perhaps the biggest irony of the 43rd Summit is while President Widodo was openly concerned about the impacts of strategic competition between the US and China on the region, Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping were both absent from the high-level meeting. This should be a wake-up call that if ASEAN continues its current path, it will be as useful as a chocolate teapot insofar as the region’s multilateral security architecture is concerned.


DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.

 
Author

Juhn Chris Espia is non-resident research fellow at the Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs, and assistant professor at the Division of Social Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences, University of the Philippines Visayas.

 
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