Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The Centrality of ASEAN in Indonesia’s Foreign Policy

Indeed, Indonesia’s foreign policy needs to demonstrate assertiveness and independence.  However, as the largest and most populated country in Southeast Asia, being assertive and independent does not necessarily mean forsaking Indonesia’s role in ASEAN, even if the regional organization has lately been criticized from both within and abroad. 

And most importantly, in spite of making ASEAN the cornerstone of its foreign policy, Indonesia remains active in other engagement efforts beyond this regional body’s mechanism.  Although it has to be said that in larger forums, Indonesia has gained prominence as one of the few, if not the only, ASEAN country involved in forums such as G-20, OIC and between 2006-2008, in the UN Security Council.

Unlike the views expressed by Dr. Rizal Sukma in an article titled “Indonesia Needs a Post-ASEAN Foreign Policy”, ASEAN remains valuable in Indonesia’s foreign policy, particularly as a means to engage Indonesia’s closest neighbors as well as to project the country’s foreign policy ideals within and beyond the region.  At the same time, any challenges posed by Indonesia’s association with ASEAN do not constitute a hindrance to efforts at pursuing its national interests abroad.

Criticisms as well as certain levels of frustration have indeed been raised with regards to ASEAN’s development as a bona fide regional organization since its inception in 1967.  Among others, the centrality of ASEAN as the driving force for regionalization in the Asia Pacific has come under fire, thus leading to calls for re-assessing not only the centrality of ASEAN in Indonesia’s foreign policy, but also Indonesia’s association with the regional body as a whole. 

One of the biggest criticisms against the credibility of ASEAN thus far has been the way in which the regional body has dealt with the issue of Myanmar.  While in the past such criticisms have mainly been expressed by the West, there is now also a growing dissenting voice from well within ASEAN.  Tied to this issue is the supposed inability of ASEAN to promote human rights issues in the region, thus becoming a thorn on the side of the regional body’s engagement with many dialogue partners.

Criticisms are also often lodged at the inability of ASEAN to resolve disputes among its members.  In recent times, the border conflict between Cambodia and Thailand as well as the media-flared dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia over maritime territories in the Sulawesi Sea are some of the examples in which ASEAN’s cohesion and lack of a peaceful dispute settlement mechanism are observed with much pessimism.

Issues of democracy, human rights and conflict prevention/resolution are indeed some of the elements of ASEAN’s vision of a peaceful, free, and prosperous Southeast Asian region, as enshrined in the Cha-am Hua Hin Declaration on the Roadmap for the ASEAN Community signed in March 2009, which agreed on the political-security, economic, and socio-cultural blueprints for an ASEAN Community by 2015.

Nevertheless, as efforts in community-building take place, much needs to be understood with regards to how efforts conducted within the framework of ASEAN complement those carried out through bilateral or other multi-lateral means.  In a sense, on issues such as territorial disputes, in which two or more ASEAN members are involved, a peaceful settlement should be reached by the concerned sides, while making use of the conducive environment provided by years of dialogue within the ASEAN mechanism. 

Meanwhile, human rights issues approached through multilateral efforts such as the UN should in no way be considered either as a burden or challenge to efforts being carried out at the regional level by ASEAN.  If anything, the complementariness of these efforts should give way to a more comprehensive approach to the issue, as is the case with which the Myanmar issue is being dealt.

In efforts at community-building, it would be misleading to suggest that compromise has only been made by Indonesia.  Although needing to be assertive in its pursuit of national interests, and supposedly being in a position of dominance, Indonesia’s role in ASEAN should stem from respect and example, and not from authority.  In a community of nations as various as those in Southeast Asia, differences will continue to exist; how those differences could be narrowed, through ways including certain levels of compromise, should be the measure of success for such a community. 

With the signing of the ASEAN Charter in 2007 and the development of the political-security, economic, and socio-cultural blueprints for an ASEAN Community, a strong basis has been created on which to construct a solid organization which is rules-based, integrated, and people-oriented.  Indeed, some of the difficulties faced by ASEAN thus far have been its flexibility and openness.  However, the development of the Charter and the three blueprints should evoke greater optimism about the prospects of ASEAN in the future.  At least, although not necessarily perfect to each member’s liking, these documents reflect a shared goal among ASEAN countries in building a community in the region.

To the general public eye, the benefits of ASEAN in the daily lives of member countries’ citizens are not always seen directly.  This, therefore, begs the question of ASEAN’s relevance in the local society.  However, as regional economic integration takes place, and ties among ASEAN countries are strengthened in all three pillars of cooperation, there will be an increased linkage between national policies and those implemented by ASEAN.  Indeed, the onus falls on each member country to implement on what it has agreed to carry out by 2015.

Indonesia’s foreign policy should not be seen as being imprisoned by the supposed lack of development in ASEAN.  If anything, ASEAN has progressed impressively since its establishment, with Indonesia continuously playing a constructive and innovative role.  Certainly, compromise has had to be made in ensuring progress within ASEAN, particularly considering the gaps existing among the membership.  Nonetheless, and without appearing apologetic, when considering the progress made thus far, and most importantly, the declared goal and vision to continue moving forward towards an ASEAN Community, then it would be unfair to view that Indonesia’s foreign policy has been entrapped by certain ways of ASEAN deemed inapt by a few.

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