Does Indonesia Need a “Post-ASEAN” Regional Order?


Ahmad Rizky M. Umar

In his recent article in The Jakarta Post (18/5), Rizal Sukma (now Indonesian Ambassador to the United Kingdom) embraced an interesting argument: it is time to invoke a post-ASEAN regional order in East Asia. The polarisation in ASEAN, marginalisation of ASEAN’s role of ‘manager of order’, and the growing Sino-US rivalry in recent years, he argued, has demonstrated ASEAN’s inability to deal with emerging geopolitical issues in the region.

Moreover, he argues, any regional order in Southeast Asia will require a stable balance of power among major powers, which is important to be addressed in the future.

However, Even though Sukma convincingly demonstrates ASEAN’s failure in managing order and balance of power in the region, and therefore suggests a post-ASEAN regional order, his argument misses one important point: the internal dynamics of ASEAN that leads to such failures (if we agree with Sukma’s argument).

On the other words, to argue that ASEAN has failed to maintain regional order, we need to also acknowledge that ASEAN’s failure has also been determined by its member states, due to ASEAN’s state-centric nature. In this context, we could recall a famous word from Alexander Wendt, that ASEAN is, in fact, what its member states make of it.

In this article, I propose two inter-related arguments to respond to Sukma’s idea of “Post-ASEAN” regional order in Southeast Asia. First, shifting regional focus to broader East Asian context can only work if Indonesia could maintain its hegemonic position. Second, it is important to revitalise Indonesia’s leadership in ASEAN through ASEAN-centered foreign policies

ASEAN and Regional Order

Since its establishment in 1967, ASEAN has been preserved as a diplomatic forum by its member states. State has been the only acknowledged actor until the 2nd ASEAN Summit in 2003, where its member states have agreed to expand the institutionalisation under one community.

State-centrism in ASEAN has also maintained through its long-standing principles, non-interventionism, which put state’s strong position in the regional institution. ASEAN’s institutional design has also put strong state’s presence in maintaining day-to-day activities, albeit with some space for non-state actors (such as CSOs or Business Actors) to engage in decision-making processes.

Putting the state as inseparable actor in ASEAN is important to understand why ASEAN failed to address major issues in ASEAN, most recently the South China Sea Crisis. The latest ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, held recently in Vientiane, Laos, demonstrate this problem: ASEAN’s failure to reach a consensus to deal with South China Sea has been caused by the absence of ‘common ground’ among states to propose a roadmap to overcome the crisis.

Therefore, it can be argued that ASEAN relies on its member states. Sukma’s argument therefore illustrated the absence of a strong institutional rule that bind all its member states in dealing with major geopolitical issues in world politics.  Institutionalists might argue that this failure could be caused by the absence of institutional backdrop in ASEAN, due to state-centric nature of the regional organisation.

However, I found that this is not the case. Even the European Union, which has a stronger institutional power than ASEAN, has to face some internal crisis and democratic drift in its internal member-states, as we most recently witness with ‘Brexit’ and refugee crisis.

The Need for Leadership

I shall argue that what is at stake is ASEAN is not its failure to deal with main geopolitical issues as Sukma has demonstrated. Rather, I argue that it is the absence of a leadership to maintain ‘hegemonic order’ that leads to ASEAN’s ineffective role in East Asia and, more broadly, world politics.

The latest 49th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Laos could be a good point of departure. While ASEAN has produced a remarkable concern over growing crisis in the South China Sea, it has yet to design a common platform to overcome the crisis. Instead, the joint communiqué has recommended establishing the MFA-to-MFA hotline to manage maritime emergencies, which clearly brings the solution to bilateral forum.

What is at stake here, in my humble view, is not that it fails to produce a clear statement to overcome the crisis, which is a difficult thing to do, but that it abandons ASEAN centrality as an approach to peacefully settle the ongoing dispute and instead bring it as a state-to-state business.

It is true that ASEAN does not have a strong institutional binding to deal with such issues, and that ASEAN-based regional order has been limited. Nevertheless, it does not necessarily mean that ASEAN has been less important for Indonesia, since ASEAN constitute an important geopolitical basis for Indonesia’s regional outlook, even with the recent emphasis on ‘Global Maritime Fulcrum’ that has been endorsed by Jokowi.

Due to ASEAN’s state-centric nature, I argue that this case demonstrate that ASEAN needs a leadership from a particular member state to maintain, to use neorealist argument, hegemonic stability and cooperation in the region. It is the area that Indonesia has declined to play in the region.

As Political Scientist Donald Weatherbee argues (2013), Indonesia has missed important opportunity to be a regional leader during Hassan Wirayudha era, in which Indonesia has committed to ASEAN-centred foreign policy. Despites some achievement in institutionalising Human Rights and Democracy in the regional body, many Indonesia’s proposal has been rejected by ASEAN fellow members.

Sukma might be partly true to say that Indonesia needs to broaden its vision to regional order by encompassing realist, normative, and institution-based order, which implies to an enlargement to East Asian regional order. However, it does not necessarily mean that Indonesia has to shift its focus from ASEAN, which I believe has been ongoing since early Jokowi’s presidency.

Rather, especially with emergent crisis in South China Sea, I suggest that Indonesia needs to re-strengthen its focus to ASEAN by maintaining hegemonic leadership. Indonesia could do so by, for example, utilising ASEAN’s institutional rules and procedures to resolve the emerging regional problems.

A Comeback to ASEAN?

I therefore suggest that rather than abandoning ASEAN-based regional order in Southeast Asia, Indonesia needs to re-strengthen its leadership in ASEAN. It means that Indonesia needs to integrate the so-called ‘national interest’, which is executed through bilateralism, with the use of multilateral foras in order to secure peace and stability in the region.

It implies the use of institutional decision-making process in ASEAN to deal with emerging regional problems, such as South China Sea crisis or several humanitarian issues.

Reviving a collective decision-making process through ASEAN’s institutional norms is therefore important. The recent ASEAN Summit and Ministerial Meeting has evidently shown that ASEAN member states have, to some extent, abandoned ASEAN-centrality to resolve regional problems, in particular the South China Sea crisis.

Indonesia could resolve it by functioning ASEAN institutional foras to facilitate dialogue in such crisis. The spirit of ASEAN centrality, in order to create peace and stability in the region, should be held rather than the old-fashioned ‘non-interventionism. Although it is not an easy task, I believe that Indonesia could maintain ASEAN-centrality as a basis to move to a bigger regional foras, such as East Asian Summit.

To do so, it therefore implies a clear direction on Indonesia’s foreign policy towards ASEAN. Indonesia might be, as Sukma suggested, shift its focus to East Asia due to its strategic position in building diplomatic order. However, without Indonesia’s leadership in ASEAN, such attempts might not be congruent with Indonesian national interest as envisioned in Foreign Policy Direction.

I believe that in a rapidly changing international order, Indonesia should play a greater role as emerging power in world politics. It is the task that needs to be emboldened in our foreign policy.

*) Ahmad Rizky M. Umar studies Politics with Research Methods at the University of Sheffield, UK and a Research Associate with the ASEAN Studies Centre, Universitas Gadjah Mada.