When Indonesia took over the rotating chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in January 2023, the organisation was in need of strong leadership.
ASEAN was facing three major challenges. First, the region’s economy was still recovering from COVID-19 and the repercussions of the war in Ukraine.
Second, intensifying China-US rivalry and the emergence of new ‘minilateral’ security arrangements, like the Quad and AUKUS, were undermining ASEAN-centrality in the region.
Finally, a military coup in Myanmar in 2021 had exposed ASEAN’s inability to effectively respond to local crises, because of its non-interference principle.
Indonesia seemed poised for the moment. It had just concluded its G20 Presidency, when it had enabled a strong Leaders’ Declaration condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Expectations for Indonesia were high because the country has traditionally played a role of unifying ASEAN behind shared objectives.
But ultimately, Jakarta did not provide much-needed leadership on new norms and principles to maintain ASEAN’s unity and relevance.
However, it did secure several tangible deliverables during its time as chair. Given the organisation’s unwavering commitment to non-interference and consensus, this limited success is still significant.
Under President Joko Widodo (2014-2024), Indonesia has been less inclined to lead on norms, and principles in ASEAN, instead prioritising economic development. Reflecting this foreign policy agenda, Indonesia’s theme ‘ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth’ aimed to enhance economic opportunities in the ASEAN region.
In this area, Indonesia secured endorsement of the Framework for Negotiating the ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement (DEFA) – the first major regionwide digital economy agreement in the world.
This framework – along with a variety of other agreements on services, ocean industries and electric vehicles – will all contribute to greater connectivity and resilience in the region and deliver tangible benefits to the people of ASEAN, through new rules governing e-commerce, cybersecurity, digital payments and data flows.
In 2019, the Indonesian government also championed the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), the organisation’s vision for an inclusive and peaceful Indo-Pacific. AOIP reaffirms ASEAN’s central position in the East Asian multilateral architecture to preserve regional autonomy amid intensifying US-China rivalry, while maintaining good economic relations with all Indo-Pacific stakeholders.
Indonesia’s flagship ASEAN Indo-Pacific Connectivity Forum was intended as a first step to translate the AOIP into an actionable strategy and, with over 2000 participants from 51 countries, succeeded in lending some economic weight to the vision document.
AOIP continues to be constrained, however, by the different geopolitical alignments of members, even though this year’s meetings brought deeper engagement with ASEAN partners, like Canada and Japan.
ASEAN’s internal division amid a deteriorating security environment is particularly apparent in the intractable South China Sea dispute. ASEAN’s negotiations with China for a Code of Conduct have been underway for more than two decades.
But China’s assertive behaviour suggests it is not committed to a joint resolution of the territorial disputes it has with several ASEAN states. And ASEAN members’ varying degrees of closeness to China mean they remain divided over how to respond to China’s illegitimate claims.
For example, Indonesia’s decision to move ASEAN’s first member-only military exercises from the South China Sea to the Malacca Strait was reportedly driven by Cambodia’s concern not to alienate China.
Likewise, when China released a new map further extending its claims just days before the ASEAN summit, Philippines and Vietnam determinedly rejected the move, but ASEAN itself failed to issue a joint statement because of reluctance from the remaining members to openly criticise China.
Strengthening institutional effectiveness
Indonesia also aimed to use its position as chair to enhance ASEAN’s institutional effectiveness. One step towards this was a commitment to strengthen the capacity of the ASEAN Secretariat, which facilitates regional cooperation.
In line with its traditional role in driving institution-building, Indonesia also championed a new long-term vision for regional cooperation. The Concord IV commits ASEAN to the ‘promotion and protection’ of human rights and spells out priorities such as connectivity and food and energy security, to support community-building in the region.
But none of these steps go far enough to address the more fundamental issues caused by ASEAN norms. The non-interference and consensus principles make the organisation’s decision-making slow and often ineffective. Nowhere is this more visible than in ASEAN’s struggle to deal with civil conflict in Myanmar.
Even before its became chair, Indonesia assumed leadership in ASEAN’s response to the 2021 coup by convening an emergency meeting in Jakarta. This resulted in the 5 Point Consensus (5PC), a framework to resolve the crisis that guides ASEAN’s approach to Myanmar. During its time as rotating chair, the Indonesian government conducted 110 engagements with different stakeholders in Myanmar.
Still, Jakarta has limited leverage in Myanmar and Indonesia’s peacebuilding efforts made little headway in resolving the crisis, although Myanmar has not been invited to the ASEAN summit since the military seized power in 2021.
The establishment of an informal “troika” of previous, current, and future chairs will at least ensure some continuity in the pursuit of the 5PC. ASEAN leaders’ critical review of the 5PC has also been lauded as an encouraging sign of regional solidarity. Nonetheless, the junta’s reticence in respect a regional solution exposes ASEAN’s inability to protect the human rights and democratic values it has committed to.
A limited success
Now in the last weeks of its time as chair, Jakarta has failed to provide ASEAN with much-needed leadership on defining new norms and principles. This will make it hard for the organisation to respond to strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific or the Myanmar crisis in the future.
Yet expectations that Indonesia could live up to these hopes were always over-ambitious. ASEAN is determined not to give up its principles of non-interference and consensus – even at the cost of regional stability.
Still, Indonesia’s development-focussed agenda did succeed in securing several solid outcomes. Amid regional divisions and growing geopolitical tension, this may be the best we can hope for.