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ASEAN and Indonesia Under Jokowi

16 May 2017
By Dr Avery Poole
Rodrigo Duterte and Joko Widodo (Wikimedia Commons).

Rather than distancing Indonesia from ASEAN, as some claim, Jokowi has taken a pragmatic approach that supports ASEAN while acknowledging its impotency on some key issues. Indeed, at the ASEAN Summit in Manila last month, Jokowi called for the association to remain the “hub of regional diplomacy”. Yet the rise of China has made ASEAN unity elusive.

The Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo called for unity within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) again at the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila late last month. Jokowi urged fellow ASEAN leaders: “Do not let ASEAN become a proxy for the rivalry of big powers. ASEAN must remain a hub of regional diplomacy. Unity and centrality are the keys to making ASEAN a respected organisation.” This sort of rhetoric should reassure those who fret whether Jokowi’s presidency signals Indonesia’s turning away from ASEAN. But does it suggest that ASEAN might make meaningful progress in improving cooperation rather than ‘agreeing to disagree’ on difficult issues such as the South China Sea disputes?

Since Jokowi’s presidential term began in October 2014, there has been perennial debate about his prioritisation of foreign policy generally and of ASEAN specifically. In late 2015, prominent analyst, adviser and now Indonesia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Rizal Sukma, said, “We used to say ASEAN is the cornerstone of our foreign policy. Now we change it to a cornerstone of our foreign policy.” In contrast, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi asserted in her Annual Press Statement in January 2017 that “ASEAN remains the cornerstone of Indonesia’s foreign policy” (emphasis added). This is more than a debate about prepositions: it points to the distinction between Indonesia’s official rhetoric on the prioritisation of ASEAN and the reality that Indonesia is looking to other groupings and foreign policy approaches as ASEAN’s failure to make meaningful progress on key governance issues persists.

This is not to suggest that the Indonesian government is actively developing a “post-ASEAN foreign policy” (again, a phrase used by Rizal Sukma) behind the scenes. But Jokowi lacks former President Yudhoyono’s enthusiasm for multilateral diplomacy through regional and international organisations in general. He is focused on the pursuit of Indonesia’s national interest, conceived in terms of tangible concerns, such as maritime security and domestic economic growth. He is less inclined to worry about Indonesia’s image as a good international citizen in regional and global multilateral forums. Jokowi is not neglecting foreign policy; rather, he has a different approach. He emphasises bilateralism more than multilateralism and is more likely than his predecessor to ask what ASEAN (and other organisations) can do for Indonesia, rather than accept unquestioningly the value of liberal internationalism.

Of course, as the default leader of ASEAN—the first among equalsIndonesia can ask these difficult questions. Indonesia has played a key role at pivotal moments in ASEAN’s development: its founding in 1967 and the development of its founding treaty (1976); the adoption of its first charter (2008); and recent nods to liberal norms such as the creation of a regional human rights body (2009) and human rights declaration (2012). At the 30th summit, Jokowi argued that ASEAN leaders “must have the courage to look at our strengths and weaknesses so that it will remain a relevant organisation for its people and for the world.” He urged his counterparts to pay greater attention to transnational crime (incuding piracy, illegal fishing and terrorism), to promote and protect human rights, and to strengthen economic cooperation. Under Jokowi, Indonesia is pushing ASEAN to be more effective and cooperative. The problem is that various officials and analysts (both within and outside Indonesia) have wanted more from ASEAN for some time.

The divisions that undermine meaningful ASEAN responses to regional governance challenges are illustrated by the South China Sea disputes. In his capacity as chair of the 30th ASEAN summit, President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte reported that the member states had “reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation and over-flight in and above the South China Sea.” This echoed previous ASEAN statements, which have routinely included references to the disputes without being able to provide evidence of progress on resolving them. The key obstacle is the varied positions of individual member states on this issue. Some (Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam) are claimants in the dispute, while others (Cambodia and Laos) are close to China and support its desire to keep the disputes out of multilateral forums. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which ASEAN plays a key role, as some have suggested it might, in successfully resolving the disputes.

In this context, Jokowi’s argument, that “ASEAN internally needs to have a mutual agreement on this issue [before it can] communicate with China”, is persuasive. Such statements suggest a certain pragmatism in Indonesia’s approach to ASEAN. There is little value in making lofty pronouncements about ASEAN’s capacity to solve major regional problems if member states have profoundly conflicting interests. Jokowi is not distancing himself from ASEAN so much as pointing to the realities of its impotence in some areas.

This is where participation in other regional groupings has appeal. Jakarta’s enthusiastic chairmanship of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) in March fuelled speculation that ASEAN had slipped in Indonesia’s consciousness. Jokowi has also turned recently to the subgrouping known as IMT-GT (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand-Growth Triangle) to garner support in the face of pressure from the European Union on palm oil production. However, Indonesia has long participated in a myriad of regional and international organisations; Yudhoyono, for example, championed Indonesia’s role in the G20, World Bank and World Trade Organization, while continuing to emphasise the centrality of ASEAN. Under Jokowi, ASEAN remains important; however, Indonesia’s approach is more pragmatic and raises tough questions about ASEAN’s future.

Dr Avery Poole is assistant director of the Melbourne School of Government at the University of Melbourne. Her research explores institutional change in ASEAN and Australian engagement with Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. Avery is a co-editor (with Dr Sara Bice and Professor Helen Sullivan) of ‘Public Policy in the ‘Asian Century’: Concepts, Cases and Futures’ (Palgrave, forthcoming 2017).

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.