In December 2010, the Indonesian foreign minister was asked what kind of role Indonesia would like to play globally. Marty Natalegawa replied that the idea was 'to put Indonesia on the radar screen' by showing a kind of intellectual leadership in the region.
More than a decade after being severely hit by an economic crisis that also damaged domestic political stability, Indonesia — described by respected commentator Donald Weatherbee as 'a wounded phoenix' — seems to be ready to fly high again. As the biggest country in Southeast Asia, Indonesia has always been seen, and has always seen itself, as being entitled to play a significant regional and global role.
To be sure, several years ago, Indonesia debated whether it should free itself from ASEAN 'strongholds' in order to expand its national foreign policy. Recent decisions have, however, revealed a renewed multilateral impulse in Indonesian policy. Jakarta's decision to swap its Association of Southeast Asian Nations chairmanship with Brunei (in order to take the reins in 2011 instead of 2013) and the demanding agenda it has set itself as chair indicate that Indonesia is serious about pushing ASEAN's global role.
Indonesian policymakers seem to believe there’s a symbiotic relationship between a more powerful ASEAN and a strong Indonesia. In the words of Natalegawa, 'Indonesia will continue to invest its efforts…(and) attention on the building of a strong ASEAN. Because a strong ASEAN, an ASEAN marked by all the visions that we have in terms of the community, is also in the vital national interest of my own country, Indonesia'.
After seven months of its chairmanship, we have an almost complete picture of what Indonesia is pursuing within the framework of ASEAN.
Indonesia has pushed hard to strengthen the capacities and role of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) — both to promote and, more importantly, to protect human rights. It has pursued the notion of establishing a network of peacekeeping centres in ASEAN member states, and sought to pave the way for the SEANWFZ Treaty to be signed by five nuclear-weapons states, the United States, UK, Russia, France and China.
Indonesia has also attempted to mediate the ongoing conflict between Thailand and Cambodia. Indonesia put forth an initiative to establish the ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, which would give recommendations to the member states when interstate conflicts arise, in order to facilitate peaceful solutions.
More importantly, on the path toward realising the vision of an 'ASEAN Community in the Global Community of Nations', at the 18th ASEAN Summit Indonesia pushed for the development of a common ASEAN platform on global issues, which is expected to be achieved by 2022. It’s certainly not an easy problem, since each ASEAN country has its own priorities and sensitivities in looking at security challenges.
Indonesia's intellectual leadership of ASEAN is something Jakarta would like to continue, even after its chairmanship terminates at the end of 2011. This would allow Indonesia to play a crucial role as an emerging power capable of shaping Southeast Asia's new regional architecture.
Lina Alexandra is a researcher at the Department of International Relations, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta.
(This article is an edited version of an entry that appeared in the Lowy Institute's Interpreter that can be found here.)