(L-R) Thailand's Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, Vietnam's Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Indonesia's Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, and Cambodia's Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn share a light moment during a group photo session during the ASEAN Post Ministerial Conference with the US on 14 July 2023. (Photo: Dita Alangkara / POOL / AFP)

Can Indonesia Ensure That ASEAN Remains in the Driver’s Seat?


Joanne Lin looks at what the recent ASEAN High-Level Meetings have achieved and if ASEAN can indeed play a regional leadership role under Indonesia’s Chairmanship.

Foreign Ministers of major powers gathered in Jakarta, Indonesia last week to attend a series of ASEAN-led meetings from 11 to 14 July 2023. The meetings brought together over 20 foreign ministers from within and outside the region. All ASEAN members and dialogue partners were represented by their foreign ministers, apart from China which was represented by top diplomat Wang Yi instead of Foreign Minister Qin Gang due to reported health reasons.

The various meetings — the annual 56th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM), Post-Ministerial Conferences (PMC), East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Plus Three (APT), and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) — allow ASEAN and its external partners to review existing cooperation, chart future directions, and exchange views on regional and international issues.

This is the first series of high-level ASEAN meetings with external partners under Indonesia’s Chairmanship. It came with high expectations that the biggest country in Southeast Asia will strengthen ASEAN’s relevance following the success of its G20 Presidency last year. The region had anticipated strong leadership from Indonesia in addressing the myriad of issues ASEAN faces from the crisis in Myanmar to the South China Sea, as well as in managing the intensifying major power competition in the Indo-Pacific.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi in her opening remarks at the 56th AMM highlighted that ASEAN “can only matter” if it remains in the driver’s seat in navigating regional dynamics and that “ASEAN will never be a proxy in great powers’ rivalry”. In 2019, Indonesia proposed an ASEAN’s approach towards the Indo-Pacific and led ASEAN towards the adoption of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). It was Indonesia’s attempt to ensure ASEAN’s central role in regional architecture. Now that Indonesia is in the “driver’s seat” within ASEAN, 2023 will be its chance to drive the regional agenda. However, has Indonesia lived up to expectations at the midpoint of its Chairmanship? What has Indonesia achieved at this series of meetings on the external relations front:

Expansion of the AOIP Club

Indonesia’s plan to get dialogue partners onboard the AOIP has paid off. New Zealand has just joined several Indo-Pacific countries (including Japan, India and Australia) to issue a Joint Statement on Cooperation on the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). It has heeded ASEAN’s call for external partners to support and undertake substantive, practical and tangible cooperation with ASEAN under the four key areas of the Outlook (maritime cooperation, connectivity, sustainable development and economic cooperation). However, the transfer of a laundry list of existing activities under the various plans of action into a list of AOIP projects is hardly meaningful, akin to re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Exploring new activities under ASEAN-led mechanisms like the EAS and ADMM-Plus may be a better exercise to bring greater mileage to ASEAN’s central role in the region. The upcoming ASEAN-Indo-Pacific Forum to be hosted by Indonesia later in September could help seal new commitments from ASEAN’s partners.

Renewed Impetus to Expedite the COC

Indonesia’s push for the expeditious conclusion of a Code of Conduct (COC) on the South China Sea with China has led to the adoption of a set of Guidelines for Accelerating the Early Conclusion of an Effective and Substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. The document is expected to help expedite negotiations towards COC within a three-year time frame or earlier. It highlights the importance of a COC aligned with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and sets out recommendations on the frequency of meetings as well as milestones to settle contentious issues such as the nature of the document and geographical scope. However, it remains to be seen how such guidelines can help overcome years of deadlock between ASEAN and China on fundamental differences including the interpretation of UNCLOS and China’s nine-dash line claims. ASEAN will also need to find ways to ensure that the COC is legally binding.

(L-R) Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son, Japan’s Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, South Korea’s Foreign Minister Park Jin, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, and Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee Wang Yi take their positions for a group photo during the ASEAN Plus Three Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Jakarta on 13 July 2023. (Photo: MAST IRHAM / POOL / AFP)

Reaching across Continents

Indonesia’s ambition to expand partnership on the Indian Ocean front has paid off. South Africa has been accepted as a new Sectoral Dialogue Partner (SDP) of ASEAN, making it the first country from the African continent to establish a formal partnership with the grouping. ASEAN’s expansion of external relations to South Africa attests to its outward-looking policy and to deepen its Indo-Pacific reach. Indonesia is also reaching out to the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and has encouraged greater Secretariat-to-Secretariat cooperation. With another round of expansion, ASEAN will need to consider providing more resources to the Secretariat as the coordinator of these partnerships.

Better Late Than Never

ASEAN has finally agreed to establish an ASEAN-Canada strategic partnership at the ASEAN-Canada Summit in September 2023. Canada will be the 10th dialogue partner to be accorded the status amidst another round of “upgrades” for Australia, China, India and the US which have established Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) status with ASEAN in the last two years. Under Indonesia’s Chairmanship, Japan will be next in line to join the CSP club at the ASEAN-Japan Summit in September 2023 — a deserving status on its 50th anniversary this year.

The Russian Contradiction

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has seriously violated the UN Charter and principles of international law including through the use of force and undermining state sovereignty. This has prompted a paragraph in the Joint Communique of the 56th AMM to call for the respect for sovereignty, compliance with international law, and the immediate cessation of violence. However, at the same time, a contradictory ASEAN and Russia joint statement on the 5th anniversary of the ASEAN-Russia strategic partnership highlighted achievements in the partnership and called for enhanced cooperation in several sectors (including food security). Values and principles may be important but ASEAN’s pragmatism has prevailed and the war is indeed too far to have a serious impact on Southeast Asia. Indonesia — which has seen its bilateral trade soaring with Russia — refused to shame the aggressor last year has again managed to keep its name out of the document. Russia’s proposal for the use of local currencies in trade may well turn out to be a welcoming initiative for the region.

More of Maritime (or is it AUKUS)

For the first time in ASEAN’s joint communique, the maritime situation in the region has become a standalone concern under “regional and international issues” reflecting Indonesia’s maritime interest. The paragraph highlighted the need to maintain and further strengthen stability in the maritime domain in the region and explore new initiatives towards this end. Although AUKUS (trilateral security arrangement of Australia, US and the UK, involving providing Australia with nuclear-powered submarines) was not explicitly mentioned, several member states including Indonesia have expressed concerns over nuclear non-proliferation.

The Verdict

With growing geopolitical and economic uncertainties, ASEAN’s convening power certainly helps provide a platform for major powers to gather for dialogue and to build mutual trust. However, just gathering and issuing a multitude of ASEAN statements including a 31-page negotiated document does not equate to a leadership role in the regional architecture.

As concerns over ASEAN becoming an arena of major power competition and increased military tensions arising from potential flashpoints continue to be raised (according to the State of Southeast Asia 2023 Survey), Indonesia will need to redouble its efforts to ensure that ASEAN remains in the driver’s seat.

Amidst the proliferation of external power-led minilateral initiatives including the QUAD and AUKUS, ASEAN should continue to find ways to exercise its agency to stay relevant in the region. It should ensure that the region’s trajectory lies more in its own actions than those of major powers. Indonesia which is looked upon as the natural leader of ASEAN has a few months left to turn some of these aspirations into actions.

Editor’s Note:
ASEANFocus+ articles are timely critical insight pieces published by the ASEAN Studies Centre. 

Joanne Lin is Co-coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Lead Researcher (Political-Security) at the Centre.