Indonesia As ASEAN Chair: What Priorities? – Analysis


By Panchali Saikia

The greatest flaw in ASEAN has been its inability to manage internal conflicts. Frequent border clashes, maritime disputes, ethnic tensions, local insurgencies and religious violence and extremism have threatened the legitimacy of the regional organization. Indonesia has been one of the leading and active members of ASEAN. Since it has now taken over as ASEAN Chair for the year 2011-2012, what can Jakarta do to meet these challenges? How can Indonesia demonstrate its ability to effectively manage the growing internal and external threats and maintain the credibility of the regional organization?

The tangible step towards creating a new regional atmosphere will depend on Indonesia’s foreign policy interests. In 1976, under Indonesia’s leadership, ASEAN produced the Bali Concord-I initiating the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and in 2003 Bali Concord-II which initiated the ASEAN Economic Community. As one of the largest democracies and economies in Southeast Asia and the only regional representative of Southeast Asia at the G-20, Indonesia can provide ASEAN a platform to expand its global influence. However, whether these policies and reforms initiated by Indonesia as ASEAN Chair will be appreciated by other ASEAN members remains doubtful.

The persisting challenge for ASEAN has been the problem of lack of consensus because of its diverse and often disparate members. This poses a serious challenge to the goal of achieving a single integrated ASEAN community. Moreover, with only one year to execute its plans, the chair must focus on and identify the important issues that need immediate attention and action. It has been a major challenge to prioritize a few among the many important issues.

Indonesia’s efforts to mediate in the Thai-Cambodia border dispute may no doubt be a sovereign foreign policy decision but it is a challenge to the ASEAN’s classical Westphalian principles of sovereignty and non-interference which might also create differences within ASEAN where some states prefer absolute sovereignty and non-interference policies. On the one hand Cambodia acknowledges Jakarta’s efforts, on the other Thailand is wary about ASEAN or Indonesia’s interference. Moreover, it is still not clear whether the observer team sent by Indonesia to this border includes members from other ASEAN countries which can eventually become a contentious issue in the regional organization. Indonesia has additional responsibility as the ASEAN chair and must emphasize on strengthening its dispute settlement mechanism and revival of the non-intervention policy of ASEAN.

Another major concern is over promotion of democracy and human rights in the region especially given the political transitions in Southeast Asia such as in Myanmar after the elections and release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Indonesia therefore, needs to promote the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) which has failed to operate effectively since its inception.

The debate over inclusion of Timor-Leste as a member of ASEAN has created divisions among the ASEAN member states. Singapore is reluctant to expand the ASEAN at this stage, whereas Thailand and Philippines support Indonesia in including Timor-Leste. Deepening cooperation through the East Asia Summit which now includes the US and Russia besides India, Australia and New Zealand, is a step forward towards giving the ASEAN a global dimension. This strategic inclusion has led to expansion of the regional architecture but delimiting the spheres of influence of these major powers in Southeast Asia will be a challenge for Indonesia.

What should be Indonesia’s priorities? Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has outlined three major tasks for the ASEAN Chair – to make tangible progress towards an ASEAN Community; to establish a dynamic equilibrium between ASEAN and the major powers; and, to ensure that ASEAN can be a peacemaker in a complex world.

However, Indonesia’s top priority should be deepening ASEAN’s institutional capacity. To this end, Jakarta must emphasize on a more unified stance and cooperation among ASEAN member states to effectively implement its policies. This will not only enable the regional structure to resolve its internal issues but will also provide ASEAN a base to widen its global influence. The 2010 ASEAN Chair, Vietnam, faced major challenges in creating a consensus among its member states to resolve regional disputes. With its theme ‘ASEAN community in a global community of nations’, Indonesia must strengthen the central role of ASEAN in Southeast Asia, overcome these divergent views and emphasize a collective voice from the member states. Moreover, Indonesia should actively engage the dialogue partners and the other major powers in this mechanism as well as actively engage its civil society to promote democracy and human rights which will help Indonesia in its effort to have a ‘people-oriented and people-centered ASEAN.’

Indonesia’s policies and reforms as ASEAN Chair may or may not bring effective changes but whatever the outcome, in the long-run it will have a major impact on the succeeding chairs – Cambodia (2012), Brunei (2013), Myanmar (2014) and finally Malaysia taking the chair in 2015. Although, it is too early to expect positive results, success towards achieving an ASEAN Community by 2015 will depend on whether the subsequent chairs are able to keep up the pace and process of implementing the policies initiated by Indonesia in 2011.


Panchali Saikia
Research officer, SEARP, IPCS
[email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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