Indonesia’s ASEAN Chairmanship Could Make or Break the Bloc

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Indonesia’s ASEAN Chairmanship Could Make or Break the Bloc

During its year at the helm, Jakarta has an opportunity to reset the trajectory for itself and the entire ASEAN bloc.

Indonesia’s ASEAN Chairmanship Could Make or Break the Bloc

Indonesian President Joko Widodo speaks at the 43rd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 5, 2023.

Credit: ASEAN Secretariat/Kusuma Pandu Wijaya

The 43rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and related meetings, which are taking place this week in Jakarta under Indonesia’s chairmanship, might seem like an opportunity teeming with potential for the Southeast Asian bloc. However, the summit is taking place at an intersection of geopolitical challenges and is fraught with the bloc’s growing internal contradictions and uncertainties.

One has to wonder whether Indonesia’s ambiguous approach as chair to issues like the disputes in the South China Sea is less about diplomatic finesse and more about strategic indecisiveness. Realist theory in international relations warns that power abhors a vacuum; by choosing to remain non-committal on China’s maritime and territorial claims, Indonesia risks losing its regional influence.

This ambivalence is not limited to maritime concerns; it also extends to the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. Far from being merely a diplomatic tightrope that the ASEAN chair has been forced to walk, the Myanmar situation exposes the moral dilemma inherent in ASEAN’s non-interference principle. From a constructivist theoretical perspective, which emphasizes norms and collective identity, this policy inaction is slowly eroding ASEAN’s claim to be a force for regional stability. Moreover, non-interference is becoming increasingly impractical in a world where internal conflicts have transnational repercussions like mass migrations.

Adding another layer of complexity is Indonesia’s proposal, formalized this week, to establish a “troika” of ASEAN chairs – last year’s, this year’s, and next year’s – to streamline ASEAN decision-making on the Myanmar crisis. Although this seems like a remedy for the slow pace of consensus-building, it raises questions about potential power imbalances. Critical theory encourages us to view such structural changes through the lens of power dynamics. Will the new mechanism simply amplify the existing inequalities between member states?

Similarly commendable yet fraught with contradictions is Indonesia’s focus on sustainability. Given that the country that houses some of the world’s most critical rainforests but also struggles with illegal logging and unsustainable fishing, Indonesia’s call for green policies appears somewhat incongruous. It’s essential to consider whether this is a genuine commitment or a strategy to shift the Overton window, making certain political stances seem more radical or acceptable than they really are.

On the economic front, the summit’s theme, “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth,” projects optimism but fails to address the disparate levels of economic development within the bloc. The slogan glosses over underlying issues of economic inequality and could be seen as a way to sidestep the crucial but unaddressed question of Timor-Leste’s pending membership.

The question of technology also looms large. With its burgeoning tech industry, Indonesia could serve as a model for digital transformation within the bloc. However, such advancements risk widening the existing digital divide between ASEAN countries. The challenge for Indonesia’s leadership is to advocate for technological progress without contributing to greater inequality within the ASEAN community.

The domestic implications of Indonesia’s chairmanship cannot be ignored either. Success at the ASEAN Summit could catapult Indonesia into a more influential regional and global role, thereby serving as a political asset for President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo as he nears the end of his second term in office. However, the implications of failure are equally serious. A lackluster performance could diminish Indonesia’s credibility within ASEAN and globally. If Indonesia fails to rise to the occasion, its inability to guide regional policies and respond to pressing challenges could undermine any geopolitical leverage that it seeks to gain. This could also drain Jokowi’s domestic political capital, especially if the public perceives his leadership as ineffective in navigating complex regional issues.

Furthermore, Indonesia’s chairmanship comes at a time when larger geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region are in flux, with escalating tensions between the U.S. and China. Jakarta’s extension of invitations to the leaders of Bangladesh and the Cook Islands to participate in the summit as observers signals an intent to position ASEAN – and, by extension, Indonesia – as key players in the Indo-Pacific narrative. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it offers an opportunity to carve out a role as a mediator or balancing power; on the other hand, it places ASEAN in the crosshairs of geopolitical rivalries. Indonesia’s diplomacy must be exceptionally adept at avoiding entrapment in more extensive power plays.

The recent developments leading up to the 43rd ASEAN Summit bring an additional layer of complexity to Indonesia’s role as chair. On one end, China’s Ambassador to ASEAN, Hou Yanqi, has openly expressed support for Indonesia and advocates deeper China-ASEAN cooperation. This comes at a time when tensions between China and the U.S. are palpable. Her endorsement suggests that China is keen on bolstering its relationships within the ASEAN bloc and sees the summit as a platform to promote dialogue and cooperation in new energy, the digital economy, and science and technology.

However, this poses a dilemma for Indonesia and ASEAN: how to deepen ties with China while maintaining a balanced relationship with the U.S., especially given President Joe Biden’s absence from the summit. While potentially viewed as a diplomatic challenge for Indonesia, Biden’s absence reflects a broader recalibration in Indonesia-U.S. relations. Notably, Indonesia has yet to appoint a new ambassador to the U.S., indicating that the relationship may not be a top priority for Jokowi’s administration.

The summit represents one of the most important multilateral platforms Jokowi will engage with before leaving office in October of next year. Biden’s absence not only raises questions about the U.S. commitment to the region but also echoes Indonesia’s recalibrations, including the absence of a permanent Indonesian ambassador to the U.S. This complex landscape potentially indicates mutual deprioritization and also serves as a telling indicator of the realignment of international partnerships ahead of Indonesia’s impending election season. The summit is a significant marker in this context, revealing how Indonesia and the U.S. navigate their roles in the geopolitically charged ASEAN landscape.

The perception that Jakarta is leaning toward Beijing could have far-reaching implications for Indonesia and the geopolitical balance within the ASEAN region. The lack of a stable diplomatic channel to the U.S., highlighted by Indonesia’s frequent changes in its ambassador, further complicates matters. In this context, how Indonesia navigates these diplomatic waters while chairing the ASEAN summit could set the tone for ASEAN-U.S.-China relations for years to come.

Another angle to consider is the domestic politics playing out in the background. Indonesia is facing an election season soon, and how Jokowi manages the country’s international partnerships over the next year could be part of his legacy. Indonesia must make careful choices, with the U.S. less involved and China eager to step in. Should it lean closer to China, actively offering partnerships in the economic and socio-cultural sectors, or should it try to rebalance its international relations, possibly jeopardizing its short-term gains for long-term strategic autonomy? The ASEAN Summit is not just a diplomatic event but a crucible where national interests, regional stability, and global geopolitics intersect. Jokowi’s decisions here will not only shape Indonesia’s future in the international arena but also set precedents for how ASEAN, as a bloc, engages with global powers.

In conclusion, the 43rd ASEAN Summit is far from a routine gathering for Indonesia; it represents an intricate web of opportunities and pitfalls. The summit serves as a geopolitical crucible that will test Indonesia’s ability to steer ASEAN toward stability and coherence while navigating the tricky waters of internal contradictions and external pressures. The balancing act involves diplomatic or economic skill and the moral courage to break free from outdated norms that no longer serve the collective good. As Indonesia takes the chair, it has an opportunity to reset the trajectory for itself and the entire ASEAN bloc. It is a moment of reckoning that could determine the bloc’s course for years and reveal whether Indonesia is a regional bystander or a transformative leader.