At the helm: Chairing ASEAN presents an opportunity to increase regional influence

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As one of the founding members of ASEAN, 2011 has been a special year for Indonesia, as it has assumed the chair of the 10-member regional group. At a time when Asia is becoming increasingly important in global affairs, this is an opportunity for the country to demonstrate its growing influence.

The year has been one of growing uncertainties too, within the global economy. At the same time, within the ASEAN region, moves toward economic integration continued to gather pace, while several disputes –both within and outside of the organisation – at times threatened to damage the peace and stability of the region. Through these developments, Indonesia sought to play a more active role in contributing to further integration and conflict resolution.

HISTORICAL TIES: ASEAN was founded on August 8, 1967, when the foreign ministers of five countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore – met in the Thai capital to sign the Bangkok Declaration. The Suharto government, anxious to end its conflict with Malaysia and align with the anti-communist powers of the region, sent Foreign Minister Adam Malik as a representative. The organisation’s General Secretariat has since been based in Jakarta.

Since then, ASEAN has been a key part of Indonesia’s foreign policy. This centrality is in line with the country’s founding foreign policy principles, as outlined by Mohammad Hatta, who authored Indonesia’s declaration of independence, along with Soekarno, in 1948. Hatta declared the country to be in support of a foreign policy independent of great and superpower interests that would take an active role in the world, rather than a passive or reactive one.

ZONING MATTERS: ASEAN provides an excellent forum for the realisation of these goals. In the 1970s Jakarta was taking part in efforts to make South-east Asia a nuclear-free zone and in the 1980s stood behind the idea of a zone of peace in the region. In the 1990s Jakarta signed up to the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, which was launched in 1992 and set a 15-year deadline for the creation of a free trade area among the six members at the time (Brunei joined in 1984).

With the end of the Cold War, ASEAN’s integrationist economic policy continued to grow in prominence, while the political initiatives of that era diminished.

ASEAN’s membership also grew further, with Vietnam joining in 1995, Laos and Myanmar in 1997 and Cambodia in 1999. The newer members – often referred to as the CMLV countries – must enact virtually zero-tariff rates on imports from ASEAN countries by 2015, a target other members set for 2010.

FREE TRADE SUCCESS: There has been immense progress in achieving this giant free trade zone of over 500m people with a combined GDP of around $1.8trn.

Yet in terms of achieving a more unified foreign policy, until now there has been relatively little achieved.

It is in this second area that Indonesia wanted to make progress during its term of office as chair of ASEAN.

This meant, first and foremost, resolving some of the internal disputes between ASEAN members.

Thus Jakarta has taken a much more active role in seeking a resolution to the long-standing border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia, which flared up again in early 2011. Indonesia, under the ASEAN banner, sought to resolve the conflict and provide a facilitator for the two sides to meet. By August, with a change of government in Bangkok, most analysts were optimistic that the dispute was no longer a hot one.

Indonesia has also been leading efforts to resolve a series of overlapping claims between several member states to parts of the South China Sea. These also conflict with China’s claim to almost the entire body of water. A third area of controversy is Myanmar, which is due to chair ASEAN in 2014 yet continues to have cold relations with many Western countries, further underscoring the difficult nature of any attempt to pull ASEAN’s 10 states into a unified force. Nonetheless, the steps taken by Indonesia in 2011 have shown that ASEAN is not simply about free trade and has other responsibilities and opportunities for influence.

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