JAKARTA - Indonesia is in ongoing discussions with various parties in Myanmar behind the scenes in hopes of helping to resolve the crisis in its fellow Asean member country, but this will take time, said Indonesian President Joko Widodo.
Speaking to The Straits Times in a wide-ranging interview on Wednesday, Mr Widodo also stressed that Asean will strive to continue being a peaceful region and avoid becoming a proxy for any global power, especially in a time when geopolitical tensions are running high between superpowers.
Indonesia, as Asean chairman this year, will do its best to improve the situation in Myanmar, even as things there have become “complicated” and will take some time to be resolved, noted Mr Widodo.
He said the priority for Indonesia and Asean is to implement the peace plan that Myanmar had agreed to.
The regional grouping had in April 2021 drawn up a five-point consensus with Myanmar after the country’s military launched a coup against the democratically elected government in February that year.
But there has been little progress towards restoring peace in Myanmar, which has been gripped by chaos and violence following the coup, with thousands killed.
“We have been working on this. It is just that a lot of the work is behind the scenes, but there is some work that is going on,” Mr Widodo said.
Such is the quiet diplomacy that Jokowi, as he is commonly referred to, has become known for.
This approach, the President told ST, is about strengthening people-to-people ties away from the public eye, and can be important in resolving complicated issues.
He referred to Indonesia’s year-long presidency of the Group of 20 that began on Dec 1, 2021, during which time geopolitical tensions reached new heights as Russia launched its war in Ukraine and bitter rivalry between the United States and China escalated.
The leaders’ summit staged by Indonesia in November 2022 was deemed a big success internationally and saw, among other things, a historic meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, as well as the successful issuance of a joint declaration.
All this was possible in part due to personal engagement behind the scenes, said Mr Widodo. He chuckled as he revealed that he “does not know how many times” he had to speak on the phone with leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Mr Xi in the lead-up to the summit.
Mr Widodo said he hopes Asean can also similarly have productive meetings in the months ahead, with the next high-level one being the Asean Summit that is slated to be held in the fishing town of Labuan Bajo on the eastern Indonesian island of Flores.
Regional leaders will meet their counterparts from Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the US at the East Asia Summit later in the year.
Touching on the importance of neutrality in the region in the face of rising tensions between China and the US, the Indonesian leader said: “For Asean, China and the US are close partners, especially in the economic and development sector.
“So, we have to take care of our relationship with both of them, and we cannot let it be disturbed. Asean is open for cooperation with all countries, including with the US and China.”
He reiterated that Asean will always have its focus on peace and stability in the region, and it would be a mistake to think that the grouping would allow itself to be a proxy for any global power.
“When a country or region becomes a proxy, then instability is the result. Asean is well aware of that.”
When asked about negotiations on the code of conduct in the South China Sea, Mr Widodo stressed that the priority of Asean is that any such agreement should be grounded in ensuring the avoidance of any potential conflict.
China and four Asean states – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – have overlapping claims over the strategic waterway, an issue that has remained unresolved for decades.
China and Asean agreed in 2002 to work towards creating a code of conduct, but negotiations have stalled because of various reasons, including the challenge of holding in-person meetings during the Covid-19 pandemic.
As Asean chairman in 2023, Indonesia has stated its intent to hold new rounds of negotiations with member states and China.
“Asean would like to see the South China Sea as a sea of peace and stability, where international law is observed. This should be according to the Unclos 1982 – it is very important,” said Mr Widodo. He was referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international legal framework that governs the oceans and seas.
He said he hopes for continued mutual support among member countries, and that Asean will keep up efforts to ensure the region’s success.
“For more than five decades, Asean has developed inclusive regional cooperation architecture. All parties grew, placing their principles of cooperation, and not conflict, at the forefront,” he said.
“This must continue to be undertaken by Asean as an engine for peace, stability and prosperity in the region.”