President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s effort to resolve disputes among Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states appears to have strengthened Indonesia’s leading role in the regional grouping.
The most recent example of Indonesia’s leadership in the region took place when Foreign minister Marty Natalegawa visited several Asean capitals and wrote to their heads of government on the need for the grouping to unite in addressing conflict in the South China Sea.
Marty embarked on a 36-hour diplomacy tour to the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore that resulted in Asean member states agreeing on a joint statement on the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea.
The effort was seen as necessary after the Asean foreign ministers, for the first time in the group’s 45-year history, failed to produce a joint communique from the Asean ministerial Meeting in Phonm Penh last month because they couldn’t agree on the paragraph about the territorial disputes.
Critics quickly declared that Asean’s failure to reach common ground marked the end of Asean unity and centrality in tackling problems, especially if it related to the interests of China or the United States. The two countries have been seen as trying to expand influence among Asean countries.
But Marty rejected claims Asean was not united. “Following the AMM and shuttle diplomacy, what we are focusing on now is how to keep the momentum alive in drafting the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea,” he said.
“We have agreed on the main elements and what we have to do now is to put them into details and ensure that the process is rolling along.”
Despite the absence of a joint communique, Marty said that Asean is still on track to finalise the items they agreed on during the meeting, such as completing the draft for an Asean Human Rights Declaration and the establishment of the Asean Institute for Peace and Reconciliation before the next regional summit of leaders in November.
Repairing the rift among member states, reinforced by the hard-line stances taken by Vietnam and the Philippines toward China’s claims of sovereignty in the area, will not be easy and will continue to haunt Asean in the future.
“Asean member states have to thank Indonesia for the shuttle diplomacy effort. It shows Indonesia has a leading role in the region even though its chairmanship of Asean has passed,” Ratna Shofi Inayati, an Asean studies expert from the Indonesian Institutes of Sciences (LIPI), said on Tuesday. “Indonesia has to maintain its role in waging peace in the region.”
Martin Loeffelholz, rector of the Swiss German University in Serpong, Tangerang, and also an expert on international relations, said that Yudhoyono’s prompt action in sending his foreign minister on a shuttle-diplomacy trip following the AMM deadlock is an example of how Indonesia is taking a stronger political leadership role in Asean.
“Normally that would be the role of the Asean chairmanship but in this case, Cambodia was part of the problem instead of the solution,” Loeffelholz said.
He added that such action should not be seen as Indonesia trying to dominate Asean politically.
“I think Indonesia doesn’t have an interest in dominating Asean but it has an interest in making Asean a stronger political voice on the global stage,” he said.
Ratna said that Indonesia’s leading role in the region was entrenched given it pioneered Asean’s establishment in 1967 under the administration of President Suharto.
“However, Indonesia had a relatively low-key presence in Asean during the next presidents’ administrations, though it was so-so under President Megawati Sukarnoputri. What SBY is doing now is a continuation of Suharto’s legacy,” she said. “Whoever the next president will be, Asean should continue to be the main focus in Indonesia’s foreign policy.”
Last year, Indonesia took a leading role in restoring order in the region when it was mandated by the United Nations to act as a mediator for a border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia.
The move coincided with Indonesia’s turn to take the regional bloc’s rotating chairmanship.
Indonesia has also been quietly promoting political reform in Myanmar, hosting visits by the country’s presidential advisory team and sending military reformers, such as Agus Wijoyo, to pass on Indonesia’s experience of democratic transition.
While other Asean members have argued in favour of cutting Myanmar from the group, Yudhoyono stood firm, insisting that casting the reclusive country out of the organisation would only push it toward China, endangering the balance of power in the region.
More recently Yudhoyono called on Myanmar President Thein Sein to solve the deadly communal conflicts between the Rakhine and Rohingya ethnic groups that has led to asylum-seekers flowing into neighbouring Asean countries for years.
LIPI’s Ratna said that it was understandable that Indonesia made the call to Myanmar, considering that Indonesia is receiving its share of fleeing Rohingya people.
“Indonesia should urge Myanmar to resolve the problem accordingly because it has been going on for a long time and it is only getting worse, considering that Myanmar itself is poised to chair Asean in 2014,” Ratna said.
She added that Indonesia could boost Asean’s prominence on the world stage when the country holds the chairmanship of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation next year.
“Through the Apec forum, Indonesia could push Asean centrality in the wider Asia-Pacific region, especially considering the Asean is the most solid regional bloc in the world,” she said.
Indonesia’s good intentions and largely selfless diplomatic efforts can be held up as a rare example of a powerful nation putting the interests of others before its own, Michael Vatikiotis, Asia regional director of the centre for Humanitarian Dialogue based in Singapore, wrote in the Straits Times newspaper on Monday.