Indonesia Capitalizes on ASEAN Divisions
Image Credit: The Offical CTBTO Photostream (Flickr)

Indonesia Capitalizes on ASEAN Divisions


The sidelines of the recent ASEAN ruckus offered a rare glimpse of the political and trading bloc grasping for diplomatic straws. Their failure to produce a closing statement at the summit, a first in its 45 year history, was only redeemed by some fast moving last minute footwork from the Indonesians.

A six point document was released recently which reaffirmed in general terms the “ASEAN way” in dispute resolution, in particular with China in the resource-rich South China Sea, also known as the West Philippine Sea and the East Sea in Vietnam.

Neither The Philippines nor Vietnam agreed with the statement.

In the end it was a document that saved Cambodia’s position as the current chair of ASEAN, where many have accused it of putting its own bilateral interests with China ahead of the overall and more immediate interests of the bloc.

This point not lost in a report written by Keith Loveard, a senior analyst with the Jakarta-based Concord Security, for private clients of the consulting firm. The report also notes, however, that Cambodia was not the only country acting out of self-interest in the recent marathon of diplomacy. In fact, the widely depicted protagonist of the recent saga, Indonesia, could be accused of doing the same.

“Put bluntly, Jakarta really does not care if ASEAN lives or dies,” Loveard writes.

“What is important is that Jakarta and Indonesia project themselves as important players within the region. That will serve to make it clear both to Beijing and Washington and any other player who wants to get involved in Southeast Asia that it has to treat Indonesia as a partner.”

That message was received loud and clear, with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa embarking on a whistle-stop tour of five countries in two days before winning an agreement on a statement that, as Loveard says, papered over a wide crack.

“Indonesia is acting in its own interests, not those of ASEAN, determined to carve itself a major role in regional diplomacy with or without the organization,” the report said.

It added that while other countries’ diplomats would avoid their ideological foes, Indonesia would always maintain a friendly demeanor.

“Being friends with all parties is one of the official principles of Indonesia’s foreign policy. One of the other principles is that foreign policy should be pursued in an active manner, and that was certainly on show at the end of last week.”

It’s an important point.

The six-point statement offered the barest of rhetoric. In itself, this is not uncommon, but the heated arguments, hissy fits and air miles clocked-up to get this to the table was nothing short of a gold rush for ASEAN skeptics who believe differences among members will eventually prove insurmountable.

Loveard also noted that Cambodia remains highly sensitive to criticism of its close relationship to one of two “elephants in the room” – namely China, the other elephant being the United States.

“It is highly dependent on Chinese investment and fears losing that investment if it does not cater to Chinese demands on the South China Sea.”

That makes it an unfortunate choice as chair of ASEAN this year. Since it was its turn to lead the organization it was impossible to avoid a situation in which it was likely to have to choose between its allegiance to China and its responsibilities to ASEAN. Clearly, it preferred China to ASEAN.

“For China, Cambodia represents a malleable ally in a region where a number of other countries are leaning toward the U.S. Singapore and the Philippines are firmly in the U.S. camp; Vietnam is in talks with Washington over the use of Cam Ranh Bay by the U.S. Navy.

“For Indonesia, still carefully sitting on the fence between these two elephants, the crisis in ASEAN represented an opportunity.”

The report noted that Indonesia would remain neutral in the battle for influence between the U.S. and China and its policy of being friends to all would continue and put Jakarta in a good position to achieve maximum benefit.

“The problem it faces, however, is that if the two elephants in the room do decide that the only course of action is hostility, there will be nothing a middleweight like Indonesia will be able to do but sit on the sidelines and watch the world as we know it collapse.”

June 11, 2013 at 00:41

Seriously, Indonesia have to put a stop on the “free” in it’s “free and active” foreign policy. As the “visibly” leader of S.E. Asia, it needs to put more effort to the situation. Beside, a country that have such huge economy and political power should have a bigger responsibilty as compared to it’s other neighbour (even I think Malay & Singapore should put more talk here too..).

Adrian Klemann
August 8, 2012 at 23:37

Of course Jakarta has concern about Natuna island. But Indonesia obviously aiming to be natural leader for ASEAN since Indonesia is the biggest country in the region and today Indonesia is the biggest economy power in SEA. 
After last ASEAN chairmanship, Indonesia still acting as strong mediator for disputed area. Indonesia should engage intense talk with Philippines and Vietnam as the strong claimants of South China sea disputed area to prevent "real war"  
But, Indonesia must be not forget to share views with other countries like Thailand and Singapore, the non claimant countries, especially with Singapore who enjoys strong economic relationship with Beijing, it would bring more advantages for ASEAN. Singapore definitely can play bigger role for ASEAN-China talk.

August 3, 2012 at 13:56

I just know I love how Indonesia does for ASEAN…Marty does best.
Thank from Cambodia.

July 27, 2012 at 00:16

This article is stupid! I dont think Indonesia is thinking about recognition. He is very much interested in the Chinese claiming Natuna Island. It's included in the 9 dotted line claim. Indonesia could be the next country China will bully. Natuna Island has large reserves of natural gas(estimated to 1.3 billion m³). 

July 26, 2012 at 19:57

Indonesia should learn from India’s past experience in the Cold War that a game of “neutrality” has its own pitfalls. While the near-term gains of a non-confrontational approach is “economical”, in the long term Indonesia is going to have to deal with China or the USA in one aspect or the other. The Chinese still remember the persecution of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia not so long ago.
ASEAN nations have little in common that bind them together and therefore ASEAN as it stands today is bound to fracture. Nations like Singapore and Cambodia or Malaysia and Vietnam have little in common. Even neighbors like Indonesia and Singapore or Singapore and Malaysia are not in good terms with each other. 

January 21, 2014 at 21:02

exactly what is India’s pitfalls for being neutral?

July 26, 2012 at 18:42

If Indonesia does not fit the bill to be a leader of S.E. Asia, then no country can come close to Indonesian status.  Compared to the trouble maker Philippines, Indonesia is trying to be amicable and diplomatic, and does deserve recognition for its contribution.  Indonesia has to be careful about US, as south of Indonesia is Australia, a country which is always very concerned about Indonesian growth to power.  Australia is deep inside the Anglo camp, which makes Australia Indonesia's biggest future security problem.  China is too far off for Indonesia to be concerned, but US being a confirmed ally of Australia to boot is not a natural fit for Indonesia.

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