Head of the ASEAN Studies Program at The Habibie Center
In recent days there has been a reemergence of the discourse regarding the direction of Indonesia’s foreign policy, following Jakarta’s enthusiastic chairmanship of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).
That enthusiasm could be seen in Indonesia’s hosting of the inaugural IORA Leaders’ Summit as well as producing the IORA Concord. Indeed, Indonesia’s efforts to push the 21-nation-strong regional organization toward greater regionalism were applauded by many, not least by South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma and Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, respectively the upcoming and previous chairs of IORA.
Yet Indonesia’s efforts have also raised questions as to whether the country is turning its back on ASEAN and if it is, what the reasons for such a move might be. Writing in The Diplomat, Dedi Dinarto argued that Jakarta “sees a new opportunity in the Indian Ocean, an opportunity that a divided ASEAN can no longer present.”
He adds that ASEAN’s largest member “has appeared to lose interest in its position as the natural leader in the region” and that Jakarta’s enthusiasm for IORA indicates the country’s failure to lead ASEAN.
In the same current affairs magazine, David Willis agrees that President Jokowi has turned Indonesia away from its ASEAN leadership position, although he does caution against assuming that Jakarta has replaced its leadership ambitions in one regional organization for another.
The perceived state of crisis that ASEAN is in arguably alludes to the lack of progress with the ASEAN community, the continuing inability to resolve the South China Sea dispute, and recent reverses in the state of democracy and human rights in the region.
There are, however, a number of reasons that suggest ASEAN’s position as the cornerstone of Indonesia’s foreign policy is unlikely to be threatened by IORA, or any other regional organization for that matter, any time soon.
First, Indonesia has always taken its responsibilities seriously whenever it chairs or hosts regional/international organizations, seeking to leave its mark with significant contributions and milestones. This is true not only with IORA but was also the case when it held the ninth ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Bali in 2013.
The latter gathering delivered a historic achievement when the WTO agreed to the first ever deal on worldwide trade reforms since it was established in 1995. In this sense, Indonesia’s efforts and achievements with IORA should be seen as no different from the efforts it dedicated to the WTO.
Second, it remains to be seen whether Indonesia’s activism for IORA will continue once it is no longer the chair. When it comes to ASEAN, Jakarta has frequently gone beyond what is required of it; even when it did not hold the ASEAN chair. The fallout from the 45th ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in 2012 that saw Indonesia famously engage in a desperate but ultimately successful attempt to maintain ASEAN unity is but one example.
More recently one can cite Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi’s role in encouraging Myanmar to hold an ASEAN foreign ministers retreat in Yangon last December. The informal gathering saw Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi brief her counterparts on developments in Rakhine state, marking a departure from the country’s insistence that the Rohingya issue was an internal matter.
So would the travel-shy Jokowi be prepared to attend a future IORA Summit held in South Africa, for example? Would our foreign minister be willing to conduct shuttle diplomacy to resolve tension among Indian Ocean states?
Third, a failed ASEAN poses a far greater threat to Indonesia than a failed IORA ever would. This is on account of the immediate geographic proximity, the more established economic linkages, and the dynamic politicalsecurity diversity between Indonesia and its fellow ASEAN member-states.
Note that the 1997 Asian financial crisis that wreaked political, economic and social havoc on Indonesia actually originated in Thailand. A more recent example was the refugee boat crisis that left thousands of Rohingya stranded out at sea off the coasts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand as they attempted to flee conflict back home in Myanmar.
If ASEAN is indeed in a state of crisis, the obvious response from Jakarta should be to assert greater leadership rather than to walk away. The latter would only expose Indonesia to all kinds of risks, uncertainties and dangers. This is true not only for non-traditional security threats but also more traditional ones.
Indeed, in her inaugural lecture on becoming a member of the Indonesian Academy of Sciences (AIPI), noted foreign policy expert Dewi Fortuna Anwar argued that there were eight main reasons why Indonesia initiated the creation of ASEAN back in 1967, which remain relevant to today.
Among the main reasons was that ASEAN encourages a harmonious region whereby there is mutual trust and understanding between Indonesia and its immediate neighbors, thus easing any tensions and reducing the possibility of open conflict within the region.
Another main reason was that ASEAN serves as a security buffer whereby any external threats to Indonesia would come from further away, and originate from outside the region. This would provide Jakarta with greater time to defend itself and mean that if any fighting did occur, Indonesian losses would be minimized as it would less likely be on Indonesian territory.
The Indian Ocean is indeed full of potential and importance; nor can it be denied that IORA stands to benefit from greater leadership and more regionalism. Yet, it is also clear that ASEAN should and does matter more — if not most — to Indonesia. Simply put, a crisis for ASEAN is a crisis (even an existential one) for Indonesia whereas a threat to the Indian Ocean is not necessarily a threat to Jakarta.
It is for this reason that ASEAN was, is, and will remain the cornerstone of Indonesia’s foreign policy.