Features | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Cornerstone No More? The Changing Role of ASEAN in Indonesian Foreign Policy

Rumors of the eclipse of the Southeast Asian bloc in the country’s foreign policy thinking have been greatly exaggerated.

Cornerstone No More? The Changing Role of ASEAN in Indonesian Foreign Policy

Indonesian President Joko Widodo delivers his press statement as, from left to right, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Airlangga Hartarto, and Cabinet Secretary Pramono Anung listen, following ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 24, 2021.

Credit: Laily Rachev, Indonesian Presidential Palace via AP

Later this year, Indonesia will take over the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from Cambodia, just as it concludes its presidency of the G-20 for 2022. The two handovers are likely to revive the debate that emerged when President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo took office in 2014, of whether Indonesia will neglect ASEAN in favor of bilateralism and a greater international diplomatic role.

The debate was best summed up by the emergence of a “post-ASEAN” discourse during the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. In 2009, Rizal Sukma, one of Indonesia’s most influential foreign policy scholars, argued that a post-ASEAN foreign policy would begin with ceasing to view the Southeast Asian bloc “as the only cornerstone of Indonesia’s foreign policy.” In appraising Indonesia’s membership of the G-20, the grouping of the world’s 20 largest economies, he advocated for the country to reassess the strategic importance of ASEAN and to place a more pronounced emphasis on international groupings like the G-20. This raised questions about the extent to which Indonesia would commit to leading initiatives in ASEAN and, ultimately, its perceived leadership within the region.

While Sukma’s views were voiced during Yudhoyono’s presidency, Jokowi’s eventual victory at the 2014 presidential election brought attention back to this discourse and this more expansive vision of Indonesian foreign policy. Sukma’s position as a foreign policy aide of Jokowi prompted speculations of a substantial shift in how ASEAN would be prioritized in Jokowi’s foreign policy strategy.

Eight years later, Indonesia’s impending ASEAN chairmanship offers an interesting and important opportunity to reflect on whether and to what extent Indonesia retains its vigor for ASEAN. Recent developments suggest that rhetorical shifts overstate the appearance of a revolutionary change in Indonesia’s diplomacy, suggesting that ASEAN might remain the cornerstone of the country’s foreign policy after all.

Combining New Narratives

The notion of a down-to-earth diplomacy, introduced by Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, has seemingly added more credibility to the idea that Indonesia has adopted a post-ASEAN foreign policy . As a domestically-focused president, Jokowi has set his foreign policy the goal of “achieving more concrete results for domestic stakeholders,” with an emphasis on pragmatic national interests and the actual needs of the Indonesian population. Socioeconomic issues have taken priority and bilateral engagements have largely dominated Indonesia’s diplomatic maneuvers under his leadership.

Indonesia’s renewed sense of entitlement, granted by its middle power status, has been reflected in Jokowi’s “Global Maritime Fulcrum” agenda. Tapping into Indonesia’s identity as a maritime and archipelagic state, the agenda sought Jakarta to play substantial roles in the Pacific and Indian Oceans (PACINDO) – slightly diverting from former Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s preference for the Indo-Pacific construct – which would thus serve as the “primary theatre” for Indonesia’s foreign policy ventures. In extension, Indonesia desired for a more prominent role in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).

The deployment of new foreign policy narratives represented a redefinition of Indonesia’s strategic outlook and a remarkable turn from the Yudhoyono administration’s focus on regional consolidation and institutional building in ASEAN. Hewing to what Dewi Fortuna Anwar deemed as Indonesia’s “nurturing role” within the bloc the Yudhoyono administration’s legacies were indeed prominent. Pressures from Indonesia significantly contributed to the formulation of the ASEAN Charter in 2007, ultimately solidifying the group’s legal standing. The establishment of the ASEAN Community roadmap was also attributed to Indonesia’s leadership in adopting the Bali Concord II in 2003.

These achievements were made possible by the fact that ASEAN formed the cornerstone of Indonesia’s foreign policy. A post-ASEAN foreign policy, coupled with the emphasis on bilateralism and Indonesia’s maritime identity, conversely, helped to reduce Indonesia’s leadership in ASEAN and marked a stark contrast from its previously proactive role.

ASEAN: Still the Cornerstone?

On the foreign policy front, Jokowi’s presidency began with what seemed to be drastic changes to Indonesia’s approach to diplomacy. To begin with, the prioritization of infrastructure development across the archipelago drew Indonesia closer to China, dovetailing with the latter’s Belt and Road Initiative.

True to the down-to-earth diplomacy narrative, engagements with other external powers were framed in terms of immediate socioeconomic objectives, as aptly demonstrated by infrastructure projects involving investments from Japan, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates. Infrastructure and economic diplomacy have continued to be priorities during Jokowi’s second term.

Indonesia’s bilateralism matched its “down-to-earth” diplomacy narrative through which it was communicated. However, Indonesia’s multilateral engagement suggests that it has mostly strayed from early speculations that it would downgrade the importance of ASEAN and make efforts to enhance its presence in other international forums.

Indeed, Indonesia’s commitment to lead initiatives in ASEAN has largely remained and is yet to differ much from the ventures pursued during the Yudhoyono administration. In response to the growing tensions in the region, Indonesia has continued to engage in shuttle diplomacy to invoke collective responses from other member states, which dated back to Indonesia’s role in mediating the Vietnam-Cambodia conflict in the 1980s. Recall also Natalegawa’s approach to the 2011 Thailand-Cambodia border dispute, and his role in brokering ASEAN’s Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea in 2012.

Several examples show that the Jokowi administration’s diplomacy in ASEAN has mostly resembled his predecessors’ approaches, suggesting Indonesia’s desire to preserve its long-standing leading role in the region. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi’s efforts to promote a collective regional response to the February 2021 coup in Myanmar involved individually lobbying ASEAN leaders to agree on the Five-Point Consensus. Indonesia has also been among the most vocal member states in criticizing the junta’s failure to commit to the Consensus.

A more successful story is portrayed by Indonesia’s heavy involvement in the process leading to the adoption of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) in 2019. The document took its inspiration from Natalegawa’s Indo-Pacific construct, customized to better fit ASEAN member states’ preference for non-legally binding measures and to preserve the GMF’s focus on maritime issues.

At the same time, beyond ASEAN, Indonesia’s multilateralism has yet to produce any meaningful outcome, which speaks for the difficulty to move beyond understanding ASEAN as the cornerstone of Indonesia’s foreign policy. Indonesia was indeed lauded for its success to secure non-permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council from 2019 to 2020. However, Indonesia’s more pronounced interest in IORA, which observers suggested would compromise the attention that it could give to ASEAN, has yet to meaningfully contribute to the GMF agenda or the country’s Indo-Pacific policy.

Instead of placing IORA at the forefront of its Indo-Pacific strategy, the AOIP suggested a return to ASEAN frameworks and mechanisms. AOIP dedicates a specific focus on maritime cooperation, covering a broad range of issues from which future cooperation will depart. Indonesia’s proposal to host the ASEAN Indo-Pacific Infrastructure and Connectivity Forum, slated to take place in 2023, points to Indonesia’s lingering inclination toward ASEAN.

Beyond the Indo-Pacific, Indonesia’s G-20 leadership was deemed to be less effective, especially in response to the Ukrainian war. Jokowi’s decision to mediate the conflict by visiting both Ukraine and Russia in June was viewed as a mere PR move intended to signal to his domestic constituents and ensure Indonesia’s food security, while proving his credibility as a G-20 President.

Ultimately, whatever the intention of Indonesia’s policymaking class, ASEAN remains the cornerstone of the nation’s foreign policy, especially if one considers the uncertain status of its other multilateral engagements and its continuing willingness to lead regional initiatives. Indonesia has continued to devise ASEAN in addressing regional challenges, building extra-regional engagements, and managing rivalry between the great powers.

What to Expect From Indonesia’s ASEAN Chairmanship

With ASEAN still seemingly holding a central position of Indonesia’s multilateral maneuvers, attention turns to how Indonesia’s chairmanship of the bloc next year will unfold. Its past chairmanships have been appreciated for introducing breakthroughs, including the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) and the ASEAN Community vision. The 2023 Chairmanship will present a test of whether the Jokowi administration has truly neglected ASEAN and downgraded its importance in Indonesian foreign policy.

Although Marsudi claimed in a recent interview that the direction of Indonesia’s chairmanship was still under discussion, the interview highlighted some ongoing issues which will likely take center stage next year.

Sensitive discussions on the Code of Conduct (COC) on the South China Sea will likely feature in proceedings. Indonesia will also have to prove its credibility as a long-term supporter for an ASEAN-led mechanism to settle the South China Sea disputes. Simultaneously, the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus by the military junta in Myanmar will remain a priority. Jakarta will have to address the bloc’s failures to fulfill the Five-Point Consensus, which has jeopardized ASEAN’s unity and invited criticism on ASEAN’s lack of credibility in upholding human rights. Progress on these issues will surely contribute to ASEAN’s credibility in dispute settlement and the strengthening of regional stability.

Marsudi also affirmed Indonesia’s commitment in “helping Timor-Leste to get ready” for eventual ASEAN membership. Accounting for its history with Timor-Leste, Indonesia’s chairmanship is expected to be an opportunity to finalize Dili’s membership.

Beyond the issues above, Indonesia will also have to demonstrate what its leadership in formulating AOIP amounts to. Notwithstanding Biden’s claim of his administration’s firm commitment to “ASEAN centrality,” Indonesia will have to grapple with the risks of neglect inherent in Washington’s inclination toward minilateralism, as demonstrated by the prioritization of dialogues under the Quad and AUKUS.

Moreover, ASEAN’s commitment to “play a constructive role” in addressing tensions in Taiwan might also be tested under Indonesia’s chairmanship. Indonesia should be mindful that future responses to the issue might not only compromise ASEAN-China relations or ASEAN unity, but also risk spillover into territories directly bordering Taiwan, such as the Philippines.

Understanding the magnitude of these issues, Indonesia’s 2023 chairmanship will speak for what ASEAN’s position as the cornerstone of Indonesia’s foreign policy means. They will also offer a test of Indonesia’s capacity to act as a regional leader.