When Indonesia hosted the ninth ASEAN Summit in October 2003, it changed the regional grouping in an important way. It was at that summit that ASEAN agreed to transform itself into a Community. Even more important was the agreement to adopt the Indonesian proposal on the ASEAN Security Community as a new platform for political-security cooperation, albeit in a much watered down form than what was originally proposed.
Within that framework Indonesia also persuaded other ASEAN member states that the Association should start working together on two new agendas previously considered taboo: democracy and human rights.
Indeed, the impacts of the ninth summit on the evolution of ASEAN have been commendable. For one, it served as the beginning of a series of changes that soon followed, including an increase in the participation of civil society in ASEAN affairs, the adoption of the ASEAN Charter, and the establishment of the ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR).
With the 18th ASEAN Summit just finished, and Indonesia’s chairmanship of ASEAN to expire only at the end of the year, there is a need to reflect on what has been achieved and what needs to be done next.
It is no exaggeration to say that Indonesia, as ASEAN Chair, has once again demonstrated its “intellectual” leadership.
This has been clearly reflected in ASEAN’s acceptance of Indonesia’s proposal to include new elements into ASEAN’s vision. One is the imperative for ASEAN to achieve its strategic and diplomatic centrality by shaping the emerging regional architecture through the expansion of the East Asia Summit (EAS) to include the United States (US) and Russia. Second, ASEAN has also agreed to task its foreign ministers to develop a platform on
how ASEAN can play a more coherent role in the global community of nations.
ASEAN’s role both in the EAS and in the global community of nations is clearly meant to provide a new foundation for ASEAN to better prepare itself in a changing regional and global order. Indonesia clearly sees such a need as a next logical step after ASEAN’s agreement in 2003 to transform itself into a regional Community. As such, Indonesia is calling for a new vision for ASEAN — a vision that would transform ASEAN into a global player beyond the realm of Southeast Asia.
However, Indonesia’s focus on charting future directions for ASEAN does not mean it ignores practical realities. In fact, Indonesia realizes that the new global role for ASEAN requires a success in ASEAN’s own consolidation. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that one of the agendas of Indonesia’s chairmanship is to ensure significant progress in the ASEAN Community-building process. Several agreements that were reached at the 18th summit, while to a degree still reflect ASEAN’s habit of making promises on what should and would be done, seek to accelerate such consolidation efforts.
What Indonesia and ASEAN need to focus on for now is working harder to achieve a consolidated ASEAN. Leaders’ emphasis on the need to prioritize ASEAN’s connectivity, food and energy security, disaster management and the role of civil society, all reflect a normative awareness about the paramount importance of these areas for ASEAN consolidation. What Indonesia needs to do now is to push for the commitment to translate that normative awareness into real actions.
In the political area, ASEAN no longer sweeps difficult problems under the carpet. For example, the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia, despite its negative implications for ASEAN’s image, has also served as catalyst for ASEAN to think seriously about the need for peaceful and workable dispute-settlement mechanisms. It has also begun to discuss the need for a more binding agreement with China in addressing the problem in the South China Sea.
More importantly, Indonesia and ASEAN now need to focus on the remaining months of its chairmanship to start formulating the roadmap for the EAS and the platform for ASEAN’s global role. The 19th ASEAN Summit and the EAS in Bali in November are only six months away.
Written by Rizal Sukma, Executive Director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta.