After a relatively successful G20 presidency, a confident Indonesia is enjoying its status as a recognised – if yet to be truly tested – Asia-Pacific middle power. Indonesia’s agenda as 2023 ASEAN Chair contains opportunity and risk for its newfound mettle.
The Indonesian foreign ministry (Kemlu) and their peers across the Indonesian bureaucracy are probably still basking in the accolades following the successful convening of last November’s Group of 20 (G20) Bali Summit. Observers and critics have conceded that Indonesia masterfully managed what seemed to be impossible tensions and obstacles, mainly stemming from the Ukraine war and the pandemic, in bringing all G20 stakeholders to the table.
Among the Summit’s key positives were the signing of the leaders’ joint declaration, U.S. President Joseph R. Biden’s bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Xi’s exchange of courtesies with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the side-lines. Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) had valuable face-to-face interactions with many world leaders after two years of pandemic restrictions.
But now the real spade work begins. While international goodwill from its G20 presidency will grant Jokowi and Kemlu some diplomatic forward momentum, it can only go so far.
Soberly recognising that the year ahead will not be an easy one, Foreign Minister (FM) Retno Marsudi chose for her 11 January 2023 annual press statement the theme of “Leadership in a Challenging World”. Among her top priorities is a “resilient” ASEAN. FM Marsudi declared Indonesia’s wish to ensure the “unity and centrality” of ASEAN (memastikan kesatuan dan sentralitas ASEAN) so that it could be an “anchor of peace” (jangkar perdamaian) and bring about “regional prosperity” (kemakmuran kawasan), as well as boost economic growth that was inclusive and sustainable. She offered Indonesia as the region’s “bridge builder”, focusing on solutions.
The stakes as Indonesia settles in as ASEAN Chair for 2023 are especially high, particularly given the hotspots in the region and the unending war in Ukraine. First, Indonesia has the chance to stiffen ASEAN’s collective spine on how to deal with an intractable Myanmar military regime.
FM Marsudi has already fired some opening shots. Like she did last November, Ms Marsudi essentially laid the blame for the Myanmar crisis at the foot of the country’s military regime when she gave her 2023 annual statement, declaring that ASEAN would not be “held hostage” by the Myanmar issue and expressing “disappointment” with the junta’s lack of progress on the Five Point Consensus (5PC). Kemlu has also announced that it will set up an office of the ASEAN special envoy on Myanmar.
However, ASEAN must impose real costs and consequences for the State Administration Council (SAC) regime’s refusal to genuinely negotiate with Myanmar’s citizens and the political opposition. It is difficult to see how this can be done without a re-imagining of the roadmap for Myanmar. Will Indonesia be adroit enough to lead ASEAN in making sure that the SAC follows the spirit and letter of the 5PC, which some commentators have called a failure since mid-2022?
Another closely watched issue is that of an increasingly assertive Chinese presence and tactics in the South China Sea (SCS). Seen alongside recent Chinese military actions vis-à-vis Taiwan, all eyes are on whether ASEAN can negotiate a Code of Conduct (CoC) so that the SCS does not become a potential arena of military skirmish or worse, war.
As a middle power in the Asia-Pacific, Indonesia can be a moderating and pacific influence. It wields agency to flex, where needed, its diplomatic and strategic muscles even against big powers like the U.S. and China, while building up its partnerships with like-minded countries, especially in ASEAN, to stabilise recovery after the twin trials of Covid and the war in Ukraine.
But the prospects for such a Code are not good, given the overlay of U.S.-China suspicion and an increasingly fraught strategic atmosphere. One scholar has warned that signing a CoC would be to ASEAN’s detriment while China would benefit after stonewalling ASEAN for two decades. It would take immense effort and skill by Indonesia to gain any traction for ASEAN on the SCS issue in 2023. But if Indonesia misses this chance, the next ASEAN Chair, Laos, is even less likely to move the needle.
Indonesia can be expected to push for noticeable progress on the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), using it as an opening for an ASEAN-centric regional architecture. Tabled by Indonesia and adopted in 2019, the AOIP seeks to put ASEAN’s imprimatur on the Indo-Pacific at a time when external powers, in particular the U.S., have sought to promote their interpretation of the region’s security architecture. As Endy Bayuni of The Jakarta Post notes, “Widodo has a personal stake in seeing the AOIP implemented” because it fits with his “vision of Indonesia as a global maritime fulcrum in the…region”.
Beyond these areas, there is an opportunity for Indonesia to reclaim its longstanding position of influence to provide diplomatic and norm-setting leadership. As ASEAN commentator Sharon Seah noted, Indonesia can play “a crucial role in influencing ASEAN’s normative development”. A year in which Indonesia is ASEAN Chair holds some promise of a more robust response by the grouping on critical regional human rights and developmental challenges, even if domestically, several ASEAN members including Indonesia are criticised for government actions that threaten minority and other rights. Indonesia can also be expected to continue its push for the developing world to work alongside developed nations in setting the global agenda on trade, development, and other critical issues.
Indonesia might also make some inroads into a green economic transition for itself and the region. However, it must first tackle existing environmental problems at home to provide any kind of workable model for other developing nation-states. For instance, a recent report on alleged environmental degradation in the mountains of North Sumatra shed light on how a zinc mining contract, approved by the government and signed with a Chinese-majority owned company, led to two decades of destructive tunnelling and other works to prepare the mine for operation in 2026.
As a middle power in the Asia-Pacific, Indonesia can be a moderating and pacific influence. It wields agency to flex, where needed, its diplomatic and strategic muscles even against big powers like the U.S. and China, while building up its partnerships with like-minded countries, especially in ASEAN, to stabilise recovery after the twin trials of Covid and the war in Ukraine. Ideally, FM Marsudi and her ministry will not let their goals fall by the wayside as domestic politicking intensifies in the run-up to Indonesia’s 14 February 2024 presidential elections. Consistency in Indonesian diplomacy in 2023 and beyond will help Jokowi’s successor to maintain the shine on Indonesia’s middle power mettle.
Julia Lau is a Senior Fellow and Co-Coordinator of the Indonesia Studies Programme, and Editor, Fulcrum at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.