Is Indonesia about to ditch ASEAN?

President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s wider strategic vision, Indonesia’s growing international profile, and intra-ASEAN discord particularly about the South China Sea disputes have intensified discussions about whether Indonesia is poised for a ‘post-ASEAN’ foreign policy strategy.

This debate stems from the disillusionment felt by Indonesian policy analysts about the growing gulf between Indonesia and the newer ASEAN states.

On the one hand, the divide is ideological – as Indonesian democracy developed, some key foreign policy thinkers have tried to bring new agendas of democratisation and human rights into the Association in the process of drawing up the ASEAN Charter in 2007 and in debating policy towards Myanmar.

They met with ambivalence from some of the ‘old’ ASEAN members, and outright resistance from the newer members (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam), who stress sovereignty, non-intervention and non-interference.

On the other hand, the divide is strategic – while they broadly agree on not choosing sides overtly, ASEAN members simply do not agree on the degree to which rising China’s assertiveness can be accommodated, or the extent to which the US security umbrella can be relied upon.

Indonesia’s former foreign minister Marty Natalegawa referred pointedly to the resulting ‘trust deficit’ in the aftermath of the 2012 ASEAN summit which laid bare differences over the South China Sea disputes with China.

Significantly, Jokowi’s key foreign policy adviser is a leading proponent of ‘post-ASEAN’ foreign policy, arguing in 2010 that ‘Indonesia should free itself from any undeserving obligation to follow the wishes of any state or grouping of states, including ASEAN, if by doing so we sacrifice our own interests’.

Jokowi himself has indicated reservations about the ASEAN Economic Community project of creating a single market, due to kick off this year, if it would relegate Indonesia to merely being a market for goods produced by its neighbours. Given Indonesia’s central role in the founding and functioning of ASEAN, the Association and regional stability will clearly be damaged by Jakarta withdrawing or reducing its participation.

However, this is unlikely for three reasons.

First, Indonesia needs ASEAN in order to fulfil Jokowi’s ambitious global strategic vision. ASEAN is the key means by which Indonesia reassures its smaller neighbours of its benign intentions. A minimally-coherent ASEAN lends collective negotiating weight to Southeast Asian states with territorial disputes with bigger neighbours. A smoothly-functioning ASEAN is also the platform from which Indonesia can amplify its diplomatic and economic projection to the rest of the world.

Second, the ‘post-ASEAN’ argument is more an argument for going beyond ASEAN centrality, not ASEAN per se. No one has suggested that Indonesia ditch ASEAN, and Jakarta has committed very significant diplomatic resources to the ASEAN Community project and to the negotiation of a South China Sea Code of Conduct in recent years.

In other words, even as the Jokowi administration adopts wider concentric circles of foreign policy aspirations, ASEAN is not caught in a zero-sum game.

Finally, Jokowi in the course of his presidency may well become consumed by domestic affairs, leaving less high-level attention for foreign strategic policy.

In that situation, foreign policy will devolve to the most competent parts of the foreign policy bureaucracy, where the strongest institutional memory, and the most exercised diplomatic muscles all reside along ASEAN tracks.

Evelyn Goh is the Shedden Professor of Strategic Policy Studies in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at The Australian National University.

This article is an extract from a paper in the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre’s Centre of Gravity series, ‘A strategy towards Indonesia’.