This year the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) celebrates its 50th anniversary. With a record of “long peace” among its members, ASEAN is considered one of the most successful regional organisations in the developing world. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, for example, has praised ASEAN for creating an “ecosystem of peace and prosperity” in the region. But the grouping is not without its critics. Commentators have recently suggested that it is “losing its way”, unity is fraying, and it has failed to deal adequately with tensions in the South China Sea. It is also facing dwindling enthusiasm from some member countries, including Indonesia.
Several scholars argue that contemporary problems of ASEAN stem from external factors, such as China’s menacing influence in the region, and increasing internal disagreements caused by “an expanded membership, agenda and area of concern”. While these factors play a role, the causes are more complex. The dominance of short-term strategic calculations among member countries is an additional challenge for contemporary ASEAN, and this is especially true of Indonesia.
When it was created in 1967, ASEAN was not a well-formed organisation. It did not have a formal organ of power or mechanism for decision making and today decisions are still made through consensus, compliance is voluntary, and there are no penalties for not following them. Yet this does not mean ASEAN is without leadership. As the largest member state, Indonesia has traditionally played a leadership role. It has used its power and influence to mediate conflicts with the potential to jeopardise regional stability and has promoted democracy and human rights. Indonesia has been an avid supporter of the ASEAN Charter, signed in 2007, believing that formal institutionalisation could help to advance these “noble ideals”.
Nevertheless, under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Indonesia seems less enthusiastic about ASEAN. Despite Indonesia long regarding ASEAN as the cornerstone of its foreign policy, several commentators have questioned the relative neglect of ASEAN under Jokowi, including as the forum for dealing with South China Sea issues. By stark contrast to the policies of his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jokowi has preferred to limit Indonesian diplomatic investment in projecting norms in the region and has shifted focus to issues that can provide tangible benefits to the country, such as investment and trade.
While some have suggested that Jokowi’s lack of enthusiasm for ASEAN is a symptom of its struggles, a closer look at Indonesia’s internal dynamics is needed.
Regionalism is never a short-term project. While ASEAN member states laid the groundwork for a peaceful ecosystem during the Cold War period, most of these states’ leaders were at the helm for a long time, allowing years of amicable interactions and trust-building among them. During this period, Indonesia carried the mantle of leadership and provided normative guidance for the region. But the reform era that began in 1998 has brought change. While it allowed democracy, good governance, and human rights to be reflected in Indonesia’s foreign policy agenda, the reform era also led to more variability. Indonesian leaders are also now limited to two consecutive terms – and different leaders and administrations often have different priorities.
There are two crucial aspects at this juncture. On the one hand, the need for Jokowi to consolidate power and achieve stability has led him to formulate a distinct set of policy priorities. Eve Warburton has suggested that Jokowi does not regard human rights as a source of political capital, and has focused on delivering a handful of tangible economic outcomes in his bid for re-election in 2019. This has also influenced his approach to ASEAN. As Jokowi has viewed ASEAN as a venue for competition (which he has likened to warfare) rather than cooperation, other diplomatic means seem a better option for achieving his vision of short-term outcomes, guaranteeing him a better chance for the next election. ASEAN’s complex and glacial mechanisms are at odds with Jokowi’s style of leadership, and his desire to quickly deliver concrete and practical solutions to the electorate. As a deeply pragmatic politician, Jokowi only considers ASEAN relevant if it matches with his immediate interests.
On the other hand, despite the apparent dominance of short-term strategic calculations, the role played by officials in providing ideas and information to the president is also important. Despite the doubts of the early days of the Jokowi administration, recent developments have suggested a more coordinated foreign policy approach is emerging.
For example, Jokowi’s recent support for ASEAN to respond to “the new normal” of global uncertainty, mirrored the language in an opinion piece in Kompas penned by Marsudi to mark the ASEAN anniversary. Government officials (especially from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) have expertise on ASEAN and memory of the lengthy and convoluted process of developing ASEAN regionalism. They play a vital role in keeping the president informed about Indonesia’s foreign policy agenda.
To be sure, the Indonesian approach to ASEAN is rarely static. As Jokowi’s presidency has progressed, Jakarta has taken small steps toward resuming its leadership role in the body, promoting ASEAN mechanisms for ensuring peace and stability in the region. Last month, at the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila, Jokowi, to the surprise of many, suggested that “ASEAN must always be a hub for regional diplomacy” and expressed Indonesian support for solutions to the Rohingya crisis.
This suggests Jokowi may be seeing ASEAN as more aligned with his core interests. Securing regional stability is necessary for the success of his economic and maritime projects and signalling solidarity with Muslim causes can also strengthen his domestic legitimacy.
Whether Indonesia is truly losing interest or just taking a breath before resuming a stronger leadership role in ASEAN will depend on how Jokowi makes sense of the strategic opportunities of ASEAN. And that means it will be largely up to Ministry officials to present a narrative that fits with his preference for short-term wins in setting policy priorities.