Can Indonesia Lead ASEAN?

ASEAN is riding high. It recently held a successful summit. Myanmar’s ascension to the leadership mantle is a sign the country is moving in a positive direction, reflecting well on the entire Southeast Asian bloc of countries. Relative to other parts of the world, ASEAN countries are robust economic performers. Indeed, according to the OECD, ASEAN economies are tipped to grow more than five percent over the next five years, with Indonesia leading the way at more than six percent growth. The oft-discussed and much-anticipated ASEAN Economic Community is supposed to come into existence in 2015. An increasingly confident ASEAN has waded into hot-button issues like the maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas. And above all, with all of the attention ASEAN has received from China, the U.S., India and Japan, it has seen its global profile and standing rise markedly.

Still, it isn’t entirely smooth sailing for ASEAN. The regional body has a number of issues it needs to address going forward. It must shrink the development gaps between the most and least economically successful countries within the bloc. It will have to respond to disasters like the deadly typhoon Haiyan, and environmental problems, such as pollution and the haze. ASEAN must find a way to improve its record on human rights. It must do a better job at acting as a troubleshooter on issues like regional maritime disputes. Probably most importantly, ASEAN has to weather the rise of China, which is problematic on a number of levels. Let’s explore the last issue – the rise of China – in more detail.

A dominant, assertive China impacts security relations in Southeast Asia. It has already raised the ire of the Philippines, caused concern in Vietnam, and put the rest of the region on notice. To dampen these prevailing views in ASEAN capitals, China has tried to cozy up to member countries, signing all sorts of cooperative agreements. But the story doesn’t end there. The rise of China has stoked concern in Japan, the U.S. and India, all of which worry about their places within the region. India and Japan have ramped up their military hardware and budgets. And the U.S., with its so-called pivot, has decided to place more military assets in Asia, particularly in East Asia. Moreover, like China, all three powers have made vigorous attempts to woo ASEAN members.

All of this can have a deeply profound impact on the regional bloc. Great power politics, with the major powers in the region dominating media attention and government agendas throughout Southeast Asia, threatens to relegate ASEAN itself to irrelevance, just a talking workshop for bureaucrats and diplomats. ASEAN has to be careful about being pushed aside, viewed as an afterthought to the key issues and actors in the region. The bloc must also be vigilant about being bullied into submission by much stronger military and economic powers.

Great power politics also raises the chance that ASEAN could get pulled apart and polarized, fractured into competing sides. China already has Cambodia in its back pocket, and, under Xi Jinping, is actively courting the remaining ASEAN countries. The U.S. has the Philippines on its side, has made great strides in wooing Vietnam, and has taken the lead in trying to get Myanmar to lean towards the West. Meanwhile, both China and the U.S. view Indonesia as a giant prize, as both have invested considerable time and attention and resources on Jakarta.

And don’t forget Japan and India. In an effort to find new allies to balance against China, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has visited all ten member countries since he returned to office. In particular, Japan has taken steps to strengthen its relations with Vietnam and the Philippines, two countries that, like Japan, have maritime disputes with China. Meantime, with a heavy emphasis on economic, business and cultural ties, ASEAN is the center of India’s “look east” policy. And the ASEAN-India relationship is on an upward swing, being upgraded to a “Strategic Partnership” just last December.

As India, China, Japan and the U.S. pull and stretch ASEAN in all sorts of directions, who or what within ASEAN can help it respond? And how can ASEAN contain the extent of the damage (such as reduced regional cooperation, more regional disagreements, regional hostilities, and a weak and ineffective ASEAN) that results from the four powers attempting to divide the bloc up into parts?

How ASEAN, as an entity, responds to the rise of China, as well as any of the other issues and problems it faces, is in part a function of the makeup of the ASEAN member countries.

As pointed out by Endy Bayuni, an expert on Indonesian affairs, the group’s members are a somewhat motley collection of countries. Indeed, within ASEAN, political systems run the gamut from more or less authoritarianism (Brunei, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), forms of semi-democracy (Myanmar, Singapore and Malaysia), struggling democracy (Thailand) to consolidated democracy (the Philippines and Indonesia).

This means the bloc isn’t particularly cohesive. States have different interests and self-identity, all of which bleeds into policy. In this kind of environment, it is hard to agree on matters and get deals done, and when they are sealed, they are usually reactive in nature and scope.