Can Indonesia provide much-needed leadership in ASEAN?

By Joanne Lin, Lead Researcher, Political-Security Affairs, ASEAN Studies Centre – ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute

Indonesia's various moves on the foreign policy front suggest that it is preparing for a robust role as ASEAN Chair when it takes over the regional grouping's leadership in 2023. However, as Joanne Lin writes, its ambitious ideas for revitalising ASEAN will meet headwinds regionally and globally.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s (Jokowi) recent trip to Russia and Ukraine as a peacemaker could signal Indonesia’s ambition to take ASEAN to the next level under its Chairmanship next year.

The first Asian leader to visit the war-torn country, Mr Widodo said that his visit was a manifestation of the Indonesian people’s concern for Ukraine. Indonesia’s proactive approach to its foreign policy and ASEAN’s external relations demonstrates its ambition as a key actor in the Indo-Pacific and to play a greater role as a potential middle power in international and regional politics. Whether Jokowi’s European adventure was more to boost his popularity or to strengthen Indonesia’s foreign policy image – Indonesia’s leadership has been notable.

Apart from presiding over the Group of 20 (G20) this year and issuing an unprecedented invitation to Ukraine as the host’s guest to attend the G20 Summit in Bali in November, Indonesia has been appointed by the United Nations (UN) as a champion (together with five other countries) of a Global Crisis Response Group to address the challenges of rising food and fuel prices, and other financial uncertainties exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine war.

Indonesia’s “bebas dan aktif” (independent and active) foreign policy has brought about Indonesia’s membership in most multilateral forums including its leading role in landmark initiatives such as the Asia-Africa Summit (popularly known as “the Bandung Conference”) since 1955. During Indonesia’s term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2019-2020, Indonesia’s desire to strengthen global peace and security was manifested in one of its priorities to promote peaceful dispute resolution through partnerships and regionalism.

As such, within ASEAN, Indonesia was quick to take up a leadership role following the 1 February 2021 coup in Myanmar, with President Jokowi urging for a high-level ASEAN meeting to discuss the crisis. This was followed by Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi’s shuttle diplomacy in the region to coordinate responses.

Indonesia’s leadership role within ASEAN has been most apparent on Indo-Pacific matters. Despite mixed views within ASEAN on the relatively new Indo-Pacific construct — due to a lack of common understanding and external pressure from China and Russia who perceive it as a US-led initiative — Indonesia envisions ASEAN as expanding its presence and collective leadership to elevate its geostrategic importance within a competitive regional architecture. Towards this end, Indonesia facilitated the adoption of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) — a guiding document to strengthen ASEAN’s cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners — at the 34th ASEAN Summit in June 2019.

With the strong support of several ASEAN dialogue partners, Indonesia took the lead again in early 2022 to further substantiate the Outlook by proposing to take the priority areas — maritime and economic cooperation, connectivity, and sustainable development — into the mainstream within ASEAN-led mechanisms. This will enable ASEAN to extend its sphere of influence by forging partnerships with major regional powers through concrete cooperation. Several partners including Japan and India have identified specific areas of cooperation with ASEAN.

Besides the AOIP, Indonesia continues to champion bold initiatives as part of the High-Level Task Force for the ASEAN Post-2025 vision. These new ideas include positioning ASEAN as a global agent of peace in mediating conflict and promoting ASEAN as a strategic region in global supply chain systems. ASEAN is in need of new and forward-looking leadership to revitalise its role and may be willing to consider some of Indonesia’s ideas.

Indonesia is also likely to push for more structural changes to future-proof ASEAN. Its ambitions include re-examining fundamental ASEAN processes such as the longstanding practice of decision-making by consensus and changing it instead to one based on securing affirmative votes of at least seven ASEAN member states on critical issues.

Externally, Indonesia is interested in reshaping the ASEAN-led regional architecture. One proposal is to expand and restructure the East Asia Summit (EAS) to be an overarching mechanism over other ASEAN-led mechanisms such as the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM)–Plus to ensure ASEAN remains relevant in the evolving regional landscape. This proposal is among a list of other suggestions that could potentially rejuvenate ASEAN, long criticised for being slow and ineffective.

There is no guarantee that Indonesia’s ambitious ideas will come to fruition during its tenure as ASEAN Chair. Jakarta has a lot on its plate, given the current global uncertainties and Indonesia’s 2024 elections. With stagflation or recession looming ahead, Indonesia’s ASEAN Chairmanship will see even more uncertain days.

Against the backdrop of intensifying China-U.S. rivalry globally and in the Indo-Pacific and continued challenges in negotiating a code of conduct for the South China Sea, the AOIP alone, even if upgraded, will be insufficient to guide ASEAN. This is especially so if AMS are unable to see eye-to-eye. Finally, Indonesia still has the intractable Myanmar crisis to resolve as ASEAN Chair.

As Indonesia approaches its ASEAN Chairmanship in 2023, a healthy dose of ambition will certainly be useful. However, Indonesia’s grand plans for ASEAN will face resistance within and without. Indonesia’s traditional leadership role in ASEAN will certainly be put to the test.

Joanne Lin is Lead Researcher in Political-Security affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

Banner image: Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi speaks to President Joko Widodo during the 24th ASEAN-China Summit - October 26, 2021. Credit: @Menlu_RI, Twitter.

This article originally appeared on the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute's Fulcrum on July 14, 2022.