For the record, 2011 will be an exciting year for Asean - based on the must-do list the new Asean chair has vowed to accomplish at regional and international levels. In its second week, Indonesia has taken the chair with a confidence and relish rarely witnessed in Asean's over four-decade history, coupled with a blueprint to push the grouping into the global limelight. Jakarta's enthusiasm has already drawn praise from the secretary-general of Asean, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, who complimented the chair's preparedness to be "engaged, proactive, using the Asean platform to enhance Asean's profile in the global arena".
Last week, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa outlined three major tasks the Asean chair will tackle - to make tangible progress towards the Asean Community, to establish "dynamic equilibrium" between Asean and the major powers and, finally, to ensure Asean can be a peacemaker in a complex world. Indeed, it will be a tall order as the chair has to overcome existing divergent views and entrenched positions held by Asean members. That is easier said than done. For instance, the previous chair, Vietnam, faced great difficulty in garnering the grouping' s common position on global issues. Indonesia's Permanent Representative to Asean, Ambassador I Gede Ngurah Swajaya, understood the dilemma well and was succinct in saying the efforts of promoting a united Asean in a community will require Asean's collective voice, assets, diplomatic networks and constructive solution-oriented mindset.
Inevitably, the most tangible progress in achieving the Asean Community remains the promotion and protection of human rights in Asean. Under its chair, Indonesia hopes the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) will be more effective in fulfilling its mandate, reflecting the members' commitment to respect human rights. One immediate task is to agree on the guidelines of modality, which is a euphemism for terms of procedure - the term turned down by AICHR's conservative members last year.
Dr Sriprapha Petcharamesree, Thai representative of AICHR, said it was time that AICHR deliver after more than a year of preparation and meetings. She reiterated that the new chair can provide the much-needed impetus and direction on human rights protection. This year, AICHR plans to deliberate on the draft Asean Human Rights Declaration. However, without the guidelines, AICHR activities and the utilisation of its US$200,000 fund, it cannot begin. The protection of migrant workers' rights, on which the Philippines and Indonesia are very keen, will also be high on the agenda. At this juncture, it is hard to say if Asean can agree on the legally binding documents on this sensitive issue as some members oppose the idea.
Truth be told, all Asean members have problems with human rights records, including the chair. But the way each nation chooses to handle them will mark the grouping's departure from the past. So far, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia remain open and tolerant to international enquiries, which continue unabated to pressure for more transparency and access. On its own, AICHR does not have the mandate to investigate alleged human rights abuses or write-up annual reports on individual member countries.
But the best practice from these three countries and others could in the long-run serve as role models and subsequently impact on the culture of non-interference and result in better human rights cooperation and protection. The continued appeal from academics and civil-society organisations to end the non-interference principle and opt for collective responsibility is unattainable at the moment.
In addition, what Jakarta can do to make Asean more people-centred is to promote the stakeholders' participation. Indonesia is well-positioned to do so due to its active civil-society sector with more than 25,000 organisations of myriad interests and purposes. As a moderate and secular Muslim country, Indonesia continues to be the fulcrum of inter-faith dialogue forums, essential not only to Asean but the broader global community as well. For instance, the interface between the Asean leaders and civil society groups could be brought back to fit into the slogan of people-centred community-building in Asean. In 2008, Thailand did its fair share by encouraging the Asean-based civil groups to contribute their input. However, lack of mutual trust and uncompromised views and less-than friendly encounters from both sides derailed long-term engagements.
Beyond the region, a more consolidated and unified Asean is a prerequisite to engage major powers of the world. This year will witness how Asean tackles its multiple relations with the US, Russia, China, Japan and India. The first expanded East Asia Summit scheduled at the end this year and will set forth the tone and level of their engagements. Indonesia has already come forward pushing the EAS as the forum for discussion of strategic issues at both global and regional levels, similar to the US position. Other Asean members prefer a more encompassing forum, involving pertinent global issues including economics and science and technology. Key security and political issues such as nuclear non-proliferation, maritime cooperation and safety navigation, human trafficking, climate change and the Korean Peninsula will definitely top the EAS agenda.
The future of Asean's role in the global community as envisaged by Natalegawa is intricately linked to the outcome of the association's effective engagement with these dialogue partners and the broader community. He believes the role would serve as the vanguard for the promotion of democratic values, human rights and tolerance at the global level. Interestingly, both Indonesia and the US share similar concerns and agenda. They are the core to trans-Asia Pacific cooperation for the time being, due to their respective chairing of economic groupings. Washington will host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders meeting in Hawaii later this year.
The two nations must work in tandem to ensure that healthy cooperation will continue at all levels. The Indonesia-US relations, further boosted by President Barack Obama's brief visit last November, will play a pivotal role in defining the parameter of future cooperation in the region and the overall US policy. Among the Asean membership, Indonesia has the most extensive diplomatic relations with the global community. This year, Jakarta will establish new diplomatic relations with 21 countries, reaching all UN members, except for Israel.
Despite all the above-mentioned strengths, Indonesia inherits a weakness: its reservations about economic integration with Asean. It has asked for a one-year delay in the Asean-China free-trade agreement through emergency exit clauses related to general commitment. Obviously, domestic adjustments and improved competitiveness of local industries are essential to improve Indonesia's economic profile and respect within Asean. To ensure its sustainability, the newly found intellectual leadership within the grouping must be rooted in all areas. Otherwise, its ambitious plan to shape Asean's future well beyond the Asean Community in 1,451 days would be hampered.
Source: The Nation, Bangkok