Is Indonesia Choosing the Indian Ocean Rim Association Over ASEAN?

Indonesia’s substantial involvement in IORA signifies a stage of crisis for ASEAN.

From March 5 to 7, Jakarta played host to the leader’s summit of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), which was also commemorating its 20th anniversary. Given the chance to lead the summit, Indonesia has pursued significant initiatives, including the enactment of the IORA Concord, or so-called Jakarta Concord. This document, which will be used to govern the Indian Ocean and IORA members, highlights several important agendas, including maritime safety and security, the blue economy, and gender empowerment.

Indonesia’s substantial work to play a leadership role in the vast Indian Ocean, however, also indicates the failure of Indonesia’s natural leadership in ASEAN.

Why did IORA become important for Indonesia? IORA can be seen a new forum that is strategically aligned to the Nawa Cita, President Jokowi’s nine-point leadership agenda. IORA not only is a platform to attract investment for accelerating Indonesia’s infrastructure development policies, it also provides an opportunity for Indonesia to show its teeth as a “global maritime fulcrum.” As Ibrahim Almutaqqi has pointed out, through a series of economic cooperation policies contained within the IORA document, Indonesia has become actively and strategically involved in IORA to explore the potential of new economic markets and investments.

However, in evaluating Jakarta’s contributions to IORA, it is necessary to look back on the argument that Indonesia has turned away from ASEAN as a multilateral forum, instead focusing more on strategic bilateral cooperation (see: Is Jokowi Turning His Back on ASEAN?). In this context, Indonesia might see IORA as an alternative means of regional cooperation. Desra Percaya, the Asia Pacific and Africa directorate general at the Foreign Ministry, has expressed his concern that IORA not let any conflict similar to the South China Sea disputes happen in the Indian Ocean. This apple-to-apple way of thinking signifies that Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry sees a new opportunity in the Indian Ocean, an opportunity that a divided ASEAN can no longer present. At this point, Indonesia’s foreign policy maneuver hints that ASEAN has entered a state of crisis.

Indonesia has appeared to lose interest in its position as the natural leader in the region. During the 2016 ASEAN Summit in Laos, Indonesia presented no serious initiatives to find an alternative solution to the lack of agreement on a joint communique. This stands in contrast to 2012, when then-Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa conducted shuttle diplomacy to the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore in order to craft a unified statement on the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea. In 2015, Natalegawa emphasized that Indonesia’s leadership in ASEAN cannot be seen as an event but rather as a process.

ASEAN’s current leadership seems to be ready to accept the stalemate, rather than actively pursuing a breakthrough. The current ASEAN chair, the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, has not provided any certainty for the region, only calling for the code of conduct (CoC) to settle down the South China Sea disputes. Manila is unlikely to use its legal victory in a Permanent Court of Arbitration case from last year to solve the conflict and instead is likely to repair its economic relationship with China. The Philippines perceives that they it engage in war, but remains hostile if China’s activity seems to affect the Philippines’ interests. It is difficult to see Manila playing an important role under the ASEAN framework due to the Duterte’s nationalist approach, which includes a foreign policy accommodating China’s economic interests.

If Indonesia continues to set aside the importance of ASEAN as a multilateral body, while looking more toward the IORA, it will jeopardize its history of deft diplomacy in the region. Since ASEAN has entered a stalemate, Indonesia must consider taking up its “natural” role in promoting dynamic and fluid negotiations in ASEAN. Instead of celebrating its successful bid to establish the IORA’s governance, Indonesia should look to the political future of its neighborhood, which, if neglected, may disrupt its economic-oriented foreign policy.


Dedi Dinarto is a researcher at ASEAN Studies Center, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada.

This article has been published in The Diplomat.