By: Hadianto Wirajuda
The people of Southeast Asia have just witnessed one of the region’s most important and widely covered events, the ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Bali, which concluded on Nov. 19. This year’s ASEAN Summit became more interesting with the participation of the United States and Russia in the EAS talks.
While the inclusion of these two countries created new dynamics in the talks and, in a more general sense, the region, ASEAN member countries remain puzzled as to how ASEAN will retain its traditional role as a primary driving force in directing regional initiatives.
Indonesia has generally been perceived as a successful ASEAN chair, a rotating role which Indonesia holds from 2010 to 2011.
These successes are derived not only from hosting the event, but also in leading ASEAN to the landmark signing of the Bali Concord III, which emphasizes ASEAN member states’ commitment to ensuring the role of ASEAN Community in the world’s community.
Nevertheless, Jakarta still faces a number of serious challenges, such as how to keep ASEAN’s role in the region pivotal and to maintain its de facto leadership as a part of its manifestation of its regional entitlement status.
Many observers believe that while ASEAN is capable of taking up a wider strategic role beyond Southeast Asia in the growing leadership absence of major powers — such as the US due to its decreasing economic strength, or India and Japan which, according to them, are somewhat unsure of their own role in the larger Asian region, or even China, which tends to remain focused on developing its internal capacity (see, for example, Narine, 2011) — the organization is being held back by its internal division in terms of the political systems of its member states. This, consequently, underlines the question of what form the ASEAN Community 2015 would take.
While such division generally did not impact on efforts to secure regional peace and stability for decades following the group’s inception in 1967, the presence of the US in the region, which traditionally promotes democracy as its foreign policy cornerstone, would create some concerns as to whether ASEAN will remain a free and neutral zone as highlighted by the ZOPFAN (Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality) Declaration in 1971, particularly if linked to the case of Myanmar’s democratization.
The declaration clearly sets out the commitment of ASEAN members against the presence of major powers in the region.
The second potential obstacle to ASEAN retaining its pivotal role in the region actually lies in the decision to welcome the US and Russia into the East Asian regionalism.
It is of particular concern to Indonesian observers that ASEAN is currently playing its role because big powers “allow” ASEAN to do so. We are yet to be convinced that in the long run these major powers will act the same way they are doing now, particularly should an event that impedes their interest occur.
In other words, we are still unsure about steps that ASEAN would take, as a collective organization — or a community as it may — should tensions between these major powers appear in this part of the world.
These concerns are not without reason. The planned deployment of around 2,500 US marines to Darwin, Australia, in 2016-17 unveiled by US President Barack Obama at the height of the Summit created an early warning of a potential tension between Australia and China, where the latter was particularly concerned, if not suspicious, of the function of such troops.
This plan, by and large, divides ASEAN in its response. While Singapore and Malaysia opted to be “neutral” to the extent that they did not support any efforts that could undermine regional security, they also failed to openly file an objection against the plan.
The Philippines — as a staunch supporter of US in the region — welcomed the initiative. Indonesia, interestingly, displayed a changing attitude once the deployment plan was unveiled.
Early this month, Indonesian high officials welcomed Washington’s new commitment to the region, expecting the US to maintain its stabilising role in promoting peace, stability, and prosperity in the region.
This position, however, changed significantly in the midst of the Summit, as evinced in. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s warning that the plan could inflame relations and create “a vicious circle of tensions and mistrust” in the region.
It is against this suspicion that Indonesia offered a constructive approach by initiating a plan of trilateral military training involving the US and China in the meeting between President Yudhoyono and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard during the Bali talks.
Indonesia’s proposal, while potentially seen as an effort to reduce tensions and suspicion in the region, is also considered an attempt to emphasise Indonesia’s role as ASEAN’s de facto leader.
Both Washington and Beijing may accept the initiative as Indonesia has enjoyed closer relations than ever with the US during the Obama administration while, at the same time, has had no major political tension to date with Beijing.
Indonesia’s initiative, in this sense, however, should not be separated from the leader’s idiosyncratic factor, as Indonesians will elect their new president in 2014. With Yudhoyono no longer eligible to run for the presidency, this particular development is, indeed, an interesting area to be followed closely.
To sum up, while in general the ASEAN Summit has been generally perceived as successful under Indonesia’s leadership, the Southeast Asian people remain puzzled as to whether, in the long run, ASEAN would stay relevant to the regional settings of a larger East Asia given the current presence of the major powers like the US and Russia.
Indonesia, as the region’s perceived anchor, is likely to continue its assertive role despite the formal title of chairmanship, which has now been handed over to Cambodia for the next year.
The last thing that Jakarta would like to see is, nevertheless, the increasing role of the major powers involved in East Asian regionalism that could undermine Indonesia’s leadership in the region.
In this context, Jakarta needs to ensure the bigger countries, through its constructive international role as the bridge-builder between the established and emerging economies, that ASEAN’s role remains critical in any initiatives concerning the region.
The writer is a doctoral degree candidate in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), London, and an LSE IDEAS Southeast Asian scholarship holder. This article was published in Jakarta Post (11/25/2011).