With the largest population and largest land area of any nation in ASEAN, Indonesia is also responsible for around one-third of the 10-nation bloc’s GDP. It also has a key location within the ASEAN geography, straddling the east-west extent of the association’s boundaries, sharing land borders with Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and East Timor, and sea borders with the Philippines and Singapore, as well as with ASEAN’s key southern neighbour, Australia. Given these fundamentals, Indonesia’s weight within ASEAN is considerable – and many see the events of recent years as evidence that South-east Asia’s sleeping giant is becoming increasingly aware of the influence this gives it.
FOUNDING FATHER: In 1967, Indonesia was amongst the five founding fathers of ASEAN, along with Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Since then, this organisation has gained in stature, as well as in population and economic power. Brunei joined in 1984, followed by Vietnam in 1995, Laos and Myanmar in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999. The bloc now has a combined GDP of some $2.3trn – a sum larger than India’s.
The organisation has been moving to integrate its markets, with 2015 set as the target date for the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community. Under this, tariff schedules between the founding members (plus Brunei) will be almost entirely removed, while the later arrivals will head towards the same arrangement by 2018. This is an impressive example of economic cooperation, with ASEAN also signing a raft of free trade agreements with other countries and blocs, such as China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, India and Australia-New Zealand. The question many have long asked, however, is whether this economic cooperation can lead to closer political cooperation, particularly in the field of foreign policy. In answering this question, Indonesia, given its powerful position, takes on a central role.
POLITICAL LEADERSHIP: Within ASEAN, the most difficult tests of political unity in recent times have largely been related to disputes over boundaries, both between members and with the rising global superpower, China. In many of these disputes, Indonesia has already taken a major role in attempting to resolve conflict. Indeed, in 2011, when fighting broke out between Cambodia and Thailand over the Preah Vihear temple boundary, Indonesia – which had the chair of ASEAN at the time – engaged rapidly with the dispute and agreed to send observers to monitor a fragile ceasefire. The UN Security Council itself had requested ASEAN take the lead on this issue, with the International Court of Justice sanctioning the Indonesian role. A year later, both sides finally withdrew their troops from the disputed area, with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natelegawa closely involved in the process.
SOUTH CHINA SEA: Yet the biggest test of all the boundary disputes in the region remains the South China Sea. There, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam all have partly overlapping claims, while China lays claim to practically the entire sea.
With tensions in the sea higher in 2012, the year saw the Indonesian foreign minister flying from capital to capital within the region in an attempt to put together a common ASEAN position. The position of Laos and Cambodia – 2012’s ASEAN president – was supportive of China’s view that boundary disputes should be negotiated bilaterally with China, while the rest of ASEAN’s members were in favour of a common stance in negotiations. Indonesia has worked hard to get an ASEAN consensus, but the odds are high against this.
It was to Jakarta that many looked to put ASEAN back together again after the falling out over the South China Sea, with a code of conduct to be observed by all parties in the dispute being pushed by Indonesia and supported by the US, amongst others. Active Indonesian mediation in the dispute is therefore widely seen as vital, with this conferring new responsibilities on Jakarta. The years ahead then will be ones in which Indonesia may have to quickly grow accustomed to a new international influence and a new role – both as a champion of ASEAN and as a force for moderation and diplomacy in the face of at-times heated disputes.
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