Why Asean needs Jakarta's leadership more than ever: The Jakarta Post

Joko Widodo, Indonesia's president, speaks during the Bank Indonesia Annual Bankers' Dinner in Jakarta.
Joko Widodo, Indonesia's president, speaks during the Bank Indonesia Annual Bankers' Dinner in Jakarta.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi

The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

Two years have passed since Joko "Jokowi" Widodo was sworn in as the seventh President of the Republic of Indonesia.

After a rocky and tumultuous start to his presidency, Jokowi has since grown in confidence, enjoying high approval ratings and winning praise from political experts.

Yet, for all these achievements, the government of Jokowi and Vice President Jusuf Kalla continues to face questions about Indonesia's foreign policy.

Initial concerns that the President simply lacks interest in world affairs have proven unfounded, as become most apparent in Indonesia's announcement that it would seek a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for 2019 to 2020.

Surprisingly, the announcement came from Kalla and not Jokowi himself, skipped the UN General Assembly for a second year in a row.

In response to such concerns, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi pointed to dozens of bilateral and international meetings that Jokowi attended last year, not to mention Indonesia's hosting of the fifth Extraordinary Summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), its chairmanship in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), and so forth.

Nevertheless, there is still a perception of the President's disinterest in foreign policy, and in the realm of international relations, perceptions often matter more than reality.

To cite an example, while Indonesia was perceived as being highly active in ensuring Asean member states would not be divided following the controversial fallout from the 45th Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting in Phnom Penh in 2012, in stark contrast Indonesia was seen as passive when it came to the debacle of Asean's retracted statement at the Special Asean-China Foreign Ministers Meeting in Kunming earlier this year.

Jakarta, it would seem, has taken a step back from its self-proclaimed regional leadership role of Asean.

This is most unfortunate, coming at a time of great uncertainty and instability in the Asean region.

Former tourism and creative economy minister Mari Pangestu recently identified four challenges to unity in Asean, which turns 50 next year: the slow recovery in the global economy; anti-globalisation, anti-immigration and anti-elite sentiment; disruptive technology; and urbanisation and demographic shifts.

Arguably a more pressing and immediate challenge is that of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose country assumes the chairmanship of Asean in 2017.

Since taking office, Duterte has taken his country's war on drugs to the extreme, with some 3,600 people killed. He also insulted US President Barack Obama when announcing Manila's "separation" from its long-time ally for a realignment of the Philippines' "ideological flow" with that of China.

Certainly, the region has never before seen an Asean chair so openly siding with one major power over the others in the way it will when the Philippines takes over.

Even when Cambodia - often accused as being a Beijing "puppet" - chaired the association in 2012, it at least attempted to maintain an impression of neutrality.

That Duterte will most likely not even pretend to be non-partisan in the contestation of major powers is problematic, as it shakes one of the core purposes of Asean; purposes that have not only helped to bind Asean's 10 member states together but also in their relations with the wider region.

Article 1 of the Asean Charter, which lays out Asean's purposes, calls on the association to not only play a central and proactive role as the primary driving force in its relations with external partners, but also in "a regional architecture that is open, transparent and inclusive".

The notion of Asean Centrality that the association has worked so hard for the major powers to recognize will thus be seriously undermined, not least because it depends heavily on Asean's ability to be an impartial and honest broker that bridges all the different powers in the region.

As a diplomatic source once said, "Asean can play a central role because it is a friend to all the major powers."

Clearly this will no longer be the case when the openly pro-China, anti-US Duterte takes the helm of Asean. If 2012 was a historic setback for Asean that called into question the association's credibility, one can only wonder what will happen next year.

It is in this context, that Jokowi's foreign policy disinterest becomes worrying. In a period when Indonesia no longer sees ASEAN as "the" cornerstone of its foreign policy, will Indonesia still be prepared to step in and expend diplomatic capital to maintain Asean unity like it did in 2012?

Will Jakarta be willing to reassure Asean's concerned dialogue partners of the association's objectivity in order to ensure ASEAN remains central in the regional architecture?

In short will Indonesia take up its primus inter pares role in Asean and give the region a clear sense of direction and leadership in the post-Asean Community 2015 era?

There should be no doubt that the fates of Indonesia and Asean are intertwined.

As the saying goes, Bersama Indonesia, Asean akan kuat. Bersama Asean, Indonesia akan maju (With Indonesia, Asean will be strong. With Asean, Indonesia will progress).

We must therefore not allow any threats to Asean unity and centrality, whether they come from the contest between major powers, a maverick Asean chairman, or even Jokowi's foreign policy disinterest.

* The writer heads the ASEAN Studies Program at The Habibie Center in Jakarta. The views expressed are his own.