Joanne Lin, Sharon Seah, Melinda Martinus, and Kristina Fong examine the key deliverables of the 43rd ASEAN Summit and assess Indonesia’s Chairmanship.
Just nine months after taking over the Chairmanship of ASEAN, Indonesia concluded the 43rd ASEAN Summit and related Summits on 7 September 2023.
With the region’s geostrategic outlook appearing gloomier, Indonesia has struggled to forge unity among its members and to promote ASEAN’s relevance amidst the growing divide within the regional bloc. Indonesia has delivered on making ASEAN an engine of economic growth but the jury is still out on whether it managed to make sure that ASEAN matters.
Strengthening ASEAN as an Institution
When the first ASEAN Summit was held in 1976, Indonesia as Chair delivered a historically important document called the Bali Concord (also referred to as the ASEAN Concord I) that succeeded in expanding the grouping’s limited functional cooperation to political, economic, and social spheres. The expansion to include political cooperation was especially significant at that time.
In typical Indonesian leadership style, Indonesia pushed for the ASEAN Concord IV (similar to the Bali Concords I, II, and III) to add strategic heft to the grouping, and ensuring that ASEAN counted in the lives of its own people. Interestingly, Indonesia made sure that the promotion and protection of human rights in ASEAN was placed front and centre in the 7-page document. This was done in inimitable Indonesian style: just like the Indonesia of decades past, Jakarta put ASEAN’s interest first. It put in place measures in the Concord to ensure that ASEAN do more for its own people in order to remain relevant.
No other Chair of ASEAN has tried as hard as Indonesia in trying to strengthen the grouping. ASEAN has come under intense criticism in recent years for its slow and ineffectual decision-making processes as it confronts crisis after crisis – from Myanmar to Ukraine to the South China Sea. ASEAN adopted a set of non-legally binding rules to guide decision-making in issues that concerned a potential breach of the ASEAN Charter, emergency situation, and where consensus can’t be reached. Indonesia also tried to improve the standing of the ASEAN Secretariat by renaming its premises to “ASEAN Headquarters” to signal the key diplomatic role of the Secretariat.
Powering Regional Economic Integration
In light of disruptive geopolitical tensions, ASEAN prioritised the deepening of regional integration and advocacy for multilateralism. As such, trade facilitation initiatives such as negotiations to upgrade the ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement (ATIGA) have now entered into the text-based phase and the process is expected to be completed in 2024. Notably, eleven out of sixteen Priority Economic Deliverables (PEDs) under the Indonesia 2023 Chairmanship covering areas of digital economy transformation and sustainable economic growth, amongst others, have been delivered.
The much-anticipated launch of the negotiations and the accompanying endorsement of the Framework for Negotiating Digital Economy Framework Agreement (DEFA) were key highlights of this Summit. With the first meeting set to take place before the end of the year, this announcement is viewed as a substantial accomplishment, especially when such a big ambition of crafting the world’s first regional digital economy agreement is running two years ahead of schedule. In its original timeline, negotiations were only to start in 2025. To attain the goals of DEFA, ASEAN will need to work towards effectively managing the differences in technical capacities, institutional readiness, and regulatory frameworks amongst the AMS.
Other than the DEFA development, notable progress was also made on the ASEAN Leaders’ Declaration on the Blue Economy mooted in 2021, with the release of the ASEAN Blue Economy Framework. This serves to advance the region’s commitment to prioritise value creation, resilience, and sustainability in the blue economy. Moreover, this framework is also designed to support ongoing work on the ASEAN Carbon Neutrality Strategy and the ASEAN Regional Action Plan for Combating Marine Debris in ASEAN Member States.
Serving up Tangibles at the AOIP Table
Indonesia’s determination to promote the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) has also paid off. China, the US, and South Korea have adopted joint statements with ASEAN on cooperation to advance the AOIP, joining a growing list of dialogue partners (Japan, India, Australia, and New Zealand) who had earlier adopted similar statements. Indonesia had the foresight in 2019 to push through this initiative despite the lack of strong support within ASEAN for this new concept. The AOIP is increasingly becoming an instrumental platform in promoting ASEAN’s central role and its mechanisms. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has praised the AOIP as an initiative that is “omnidirectional and inclusive”, allowing ASEAN’s partners to deepen engagement with the region through new commitments.
In an attempt to defy criticism that the AOIP is lacking actionable elements, Indonesia initiated the ASEAN-Indo-Pacific Forum (AIPF), an inclusive platform to boost cooperation and unlock the region’s full potential. Despite being at the centre of major power contestation, the Indo-Pacific region represents more than 60% of the global economy with ample opportunities for trade, investment, and innovation.
The forum on 5 September successfully gathered international organisations and financial institutions to engage in constructive dialogues and identify tangible projects to cooperate on. More than 90 projects with three major themes of green infrastructure and resilient supply chain, sustainable and innovative financing, and inclusive digital transformation worth US$38 billion were showcased in the forum. Another 73 potential projects worth US$18 billion have been put together to attract partnerships. Most of ASEAN’s dialogue partners pledged their support to the projects, although no time frame for implementation has been set.
External Partners are the Lifeline of ASEAN
ASEAN’s convening power to gather world leaders around the table, such as the East Asia Summit is an achievement in itself. On the surface at least, over 20 heads of state/ government attended. US President Joe Biden was represented by Vice President Kamala Harris, while Russia was represented by its Foreign Minister (Vladimir Putin had to skip summits given the rancour over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine). Beyond that, the upgrading of relations with dialogue partners, including a Strategic Partnership with Canada and a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Japan (on the 50th anniversary of relations) demonstrates the progressive engagements between ASEAN and its partners.
The announcement of the establishment of an ASEAN-US Centre also validates the importance of ASEAN to its dialogue partners. Despite criticism about ASEAN’s effectiveness in the region, it continues to expand its influence and reach as it welcomes Morocco as a new Sectoral Dialogue Partner and the Netherlands as a Development Partner. The upcoming inaugural ASEAN-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Riyadh similarly highlights ASEAN’s reach to regional organisations.
Myanmar and South China Sea Remain Intractable Issues
This time, expectations were slightly tamped down on areas where it matters most. No headway has been made on the Myanmar crisis, although the grouping stood its ground with the second Review and Implementation Decision where blame for the country’s violence was laid squarely on the “Myanmar Armed Forces in particular” and rebuffed Myanmar’s unilateral decision to give up chairing ASEAN in 2026. Instead, ASEAN decided that the Philippines will chair in 2026 with a continuation of the rotational calendar “until a different decision is made”.
The South China Sea disputes also continued to cast a long shadow on the proceedings. Prior to the summit, China doubled down on its aggressive stance on the issue, with the release of a new map of the maritime area a week before the Summits. This took the force out of an earlier agreement between ASEAN and China to expedite the Code of Conduct negotiations. Contrary to expectations, ASEAN did not speak up on China’s new national map and instead went on to sign several agreements to deepen agricultural cooperation and strengthen food security.
The Indonesian Scorecard
Indonesia has certainly left its mark in the dozens of documents adopted at this series of Summits. By asserting the importance of human rights and the relevance of ASEAN to its people in the ASEAN Concord IV, Jakarta has stamped its imprimatur on the grouping this year. While the region may be disappointed that Indonesia could not move the needle on key issues such as the Myanmar crisis and the South China Sea, Indonesia did ultimately deliver on numerous key deliverables. Some of the outcomes would eventually be game changers for the region, such as the ASEAN DEFA and the ASEAN Blue Economy Framework, which would propel ASEAN’s future economic growth. Other declarations on human rights, gender equality, sustainable resilience, and early childhood care among others are equally important documents to ensure that ASEAN matters to its people. In a turbulent year of ASEAN’s history, Indonesia might not be able to boast of a sterling list of achievements. However, it should certainly earn kudos for back-breaking effort and true grit.
Joanne Lin is Co-coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Lead Researcher (Political-Security) at the Centre.
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.
Melinda Martinus is the Lead Researcher in Socio-cultural Affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Kristina Fong Siew Leng is Lead Researcher for Economic Affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.