ASEAN at a Crossroads: Did Indonesia as Chair Live Up to Expectations?
Now that the ASEAN Summit in Labuan Bajo has concluded, it is time to give Indonesia its interim report card as Chair.
The 42nd ASEAN Summit in Labuan Bajo on 10-11 May 2023, conducted under the theme “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth”, adopted over a dozen documents including several Leaders’ Declarations on various areas of cooperation to advance ASEAN’s Community building efforts. Many had hoped that Indonesia’s leadership would extend the boundaries of what ASEAN can be, but external and internal crises loom large and continue to challenge its quest for relevance. Here are five takeaways:
- Myanmar: Any Hope Left for the 5 Point-Consensus (5PC)?
Without question, the spiralling political and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar dominated discussions at the ASEAN Leaders’ retreat, especially after an attack on an ASEAN convoy in Taunggyi district took place on the eve of the Summit. Adding to a chorus of condemnations, ASEAN leaders issued their own condemnation of the attack, which affected diplomatic staff from Indonesia, Singapore and the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre). The statement demanded that the perpetrators be held accountable.
The strategic dynamics and internal politics of ASEAN countries will continue to derail ASEAN’s ambition despite Indonesian leadership.
The AHA Centre presented the outcome of its joint needs assessment, while Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi briefed the Leaders on the ‘quiet diplomacy’ actions Indonesia undertook in the first four months of this year. The discussion on Myanmar reinforced ASEAN’s commitment to see the 5PC through. Despite a leaked memo advocating the return of Myanmar to the ASEAN fold, leaders emerging from the retreat maintained their position on keeping the current format of non-political representation from Myanmar. The Chair’s statement expressed deep concern over the state of violence but reiterated that the decision to review and implement the 5PC taken at last November’s Summit remains valid. Despite calls from civil society groups, parliamentarians and observers to abandon the 5PC, ASEAN will not shift its approach on Myanmar.
- Timor Leste: What’s Next?
Timor-Leste Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak participated as an observer for the first time, following an in-principle agreement last year to admit Timor-Leste as the eleventh member of ASEAN (granting the country observer status to ASEAN meetings at all levels). Almost six months after, Indonesia has met expectations as Chair by facilitating the adoption of a Roadmap for Timor-Leste’s Full Membership.
However, Timor-Leste’s quest is not over. According to the roadmap (not released to the public), Timor-Leste has to achieve all the milestones prescribed by ASEAN such as acceding to hundreds of ASEAN legal instruments and agreements; establishing a dedicated diplomatic mission to ASEAN; designating national implementing agencies for ASEAN’s work; ensuring that it can meet all financial obligations (including contribution to seed funds); and having adequate infrastructure and facilities to host high-level ASEAN meetings such as Summits.
Timor-Leste may be on its last lap, but whether it may attain full membership before Indonesia’s chairmanship ends remains to be seen.
- ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific: Any Headway?
Since the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) was adopted in 2019, little progress has been made until last year when ASEAN leaders adopted a declaration to mainstream the four priority areas (maritime, connectivity, sustainability, and economics). As the main proponent of the AOIP, Indonesia is expected to push forward with the outlook’s implementation and to lock in results before Laos takes over the chairmanship, since Laos is at best an unlikely advocate for all things Indo-Pacific.
Indonesia’s ambition would see the AOIP repackaged with its chairmanship agenda and broadened to include engagements with the Pacific Islands Forum and the Indian Ocean Rim Association. As long as it remains inclusive, the region would welcome Indonesia’s leadership and initiatives including the recently announced ASEAN-Indo-Pacific Forum on the AOIP’s implementation on the sidelines of the next Summit in September. By focusing on infrastructure, digital developments, sustainable development goals (SDGs), business and investment, Indonesia will be able to foster economic growth while serving its strategic interests. Despite the AOIP’s inherent limitations in addressing the region’s security issues, it is still Indonesia’s best bet in a suite of Indo-Pacific strategies of its dialogue partners.
- ASEAN Institutional Strengthening: What Gives?
Indonesia understood from the start of its chairmanship that for ASEAN to matter and be relevant, it needs to be able to respond to crises and regional challenges in a timely manner. The Leaders’ Statement on Strengthening ASEAN’s Capacity and Institutional Effectiveness was a disappointment, with nothing inherent that would change the way ASEAN works. There were no new proposals to address non-compliance or suggestions for how responsive decisions can be made to address urgent situations. Ultimately, ASEAN needs to deal with the difficult question of how it can overcome its highly criticised consensus decision-making style or risk being redundant. Indonesia, despite its influence, will not get ASEAN out of this quandary.
- Emerging Socio-Economic Initiatives: Indonesia’s Excellent Leadership
Geopolitics have long overshadowed ASEAN’s work on its socio-economic integration. When Indonesia received the baton of ASEAN Chair last year, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) promised that Indonesia would not let geopolitics hamper regional cooperation.
The Declaration on Developing Regional Electric Vehicle (EV) Ecosystem, although merely a grand vision statement that lacks details, can still serve as strategic guidance to make ASEAN the world’s centre of EV production by leveraging its labour and natural resources. The achievement of harmonising regional digital payments using local currencies among five member states, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand showcases progress in economic integration and helps the region’s financial sector to be more resilient amid global economic uncertainties.
As Chair, Indonesia successfully brought social issues back to regional discussions. The Declarations on Combating Trafficking in Persons Caused by the Abuse of Technology and the Protection of Migrant Workers and Family Members in Crisis Situations send a strong signal that ASEAN needs to have shared and balanced responsibilities in protecting trafficked persons and workers’ mobility.
Indonesia tried its best to successfully conclude a Summit in a physically challenging location (of its choice) amid challenging geopolitics. The strategic dynamics and internal politics of ASEAN countries will continue to derail ASEAN’s ambition despite Indonesian leadership. However, the September Summit will be another opportunity for Indonesia to deliver more of its long list of priorities and, against all odds, perhaps present some concrete deliverables under the 5PC.
Joanne Lin is Co-coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Lead Researcher (Political-Security) at the Centre.
Melinda Martinus is the Lead Researcher in Socio-cultural Affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Sharon Seah is Senior Fellow and concurrent Coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre and Climate Change in Southeast Asia Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. She is also editor of Building a New Legal Order for the Oceans.