Indonesia Ends Its Turn at the Helm with a Stronger and More Secure Asean
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Monday, May 23, 2022

Indonesia Ends Its Turn at the Helm with a Stronger and More Secure Asean


Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa walks to the meeting hall of the 19th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit in Bali Nusa Dua Convention Center in Indonesia's resort island of Bali on November 17, 2011. (Photo: Getty Images)

Indonesia has completed an eventful year as the Asean chair and succeeded principally in pushing out the boundaries of collective security and political action. Right from the start, Jakarta signaled an ambitious agenda for the year, aiming to lend substance to the 10-member association as a community.

This will be hard to measure, much less accomplish, given the obstacles to political and economic union in Southeast Asia. But at least a lot has been put on the table and discussed. There might even be an agreement for a common Asean visa by next year.

However, the real significance of Indonesia’s chairmanship has been in the area of collective security. The year saw an alarming increase of tension in the South China Sea and a flare-up of fighting along the Thai-Cambodian border.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa acted swiftly to offer good offices as a mediator in the dispute over the Preah Vihear Temple on the Thai-Cambodian border. As troops exchanged artillery and rocket fire along the border, Marty convened an emergency foreign minister’s meeting and embarked on a whirlwind round of shuttle diplomacy that took him as far as the UN Security Council in New York. The upshot was a daring proposal to send observers to the area affected by the conflict, which both sides eventually agreed to.

Although observers have yet to be sent, Marty’s determined diplomacy helped cool the situation down. He was greatly helped as well by the UN Security Council’s decision to avoid involvement and call on Asean to act. The larger implication of all this was that Asean, which has long been averse to intervening in the affairs of member states, has been goaded into acting collectively to resolve conflict, and as a result some important precedents have been set.

Wider Asian security challenges were posed by China’s more active assertion of its claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea. As a non-claimant to disputed territory in the South China Sea, Indonesia was in the fortunate position of a neutral role. As China and the claimant states — principally the Philippines — ramped up tensions with bold statements about defending their claims Indonesia calmed everyone down and called for progress on a code of conduct.

In other, less noticeable ways, Indonesia has worked this year to institutionalize Asean’s role in conflict management. Earlier this year, Indonesian officials embraced the idea of establishing an Asean Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. The concept is embedded in the Political and Security Blueprint endorsed by member states a few years back, but it was never activated. At the last Asean summit in May, the AIPR was proposed and accepted at the leader’s level.

The rationale for the idea is that Asean needs a body of experts and research to deal with conflicts as they arise. The main function of the institute, at least initially, would be to conduct research and marshal expertise to advise member states and the Secretariat on the dynamics of conflict, both actual and potential, as well as suggest ways for resolving them.

This does not mean that Asean is suddenly empowered to play a deciding role in every conflict — as currently configured the new body will need the consent of member states to undertake activities on a given area of conflict.

Asean is a process, despite the existence of an Asean Charter that appears to bind member states to rules and obligations. What Indonesia has achieved is to kick-start a process of gradual development that will eventually result in member states growing comfortable with a more active mediation role for the Asean chair, the secretary general, and perhaps even the understaffed Secretariat.

Indonesia is uniquely placed in Asean to push this agenda. As the largest member state, Indonesia carries clout, even if this is sadly not always matched by the capacity to follow through.

It was Indonesia’s skillful diplomacy in the 1980s that brought the warring Cambodian parties to the negotiating table and paved the way for the Paris Peace Accords, signed 20 years ago this year. A few years later, in 1996, Jakarta brokered a formal peace agreement between the Moro National Liberation Front in Mindanao and the Philippine government.

Indonesia has also experienced the other side of that coin. From 1999 Indonesia invited third-party mediators to help resolve the violent internal conflict in Aceh, culminating in an agreement in 2005 that resolved the situation without a loss of sovereignty.

Many of Indonesia’s contemporary peacemaking aspirations have fallen on stony ground. There was an ambitious push to mediate between North and South Korea, a determined effort to nudge Burma onto the path of democracy, and periodic efforts to offer good offices in the thorny Middle East peace process as well as Afghanistan.

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