Opening speakers at the Conference on Indonesian Foreign Policy in Jakarta on Saturday (21/10) emphasized that the success story of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, must not be taken for granted amid regional and global challenges, while highlighting the need for Asean to increase efforts in realizing its promises.
“Don’t take Asean success for granted. There are many challenges coming our way,” said Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
As Asean celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2017, the regional bloc is also facing a number of emerging issues, such as the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State in Myanmar and violent clashes between security forces and insurgents in Marawi City in the Philippines, bringing into question Asean’s relevance and ability to respond to challenging situations.
Thousands of participants and dozens of foreign policy experts attended the 2017 Conference on Indonesian Foreign Policy (CIFP). The conference adopted “Win-Winning Asean, Conquering Globalization” as its theme this year.
According to Mahbubani, Asean will be an organization that’s “most under threat” with the rising geopolitical competition between the United States and China in the next two decades, as member countries are likely to be divided in their support.
Mahbubani stressed the importance of “strengthening Asean now, in anticipation of this challenge that is coming,” and added that “Indonesian leadership is critical” for the future of Asean.
Indonesia has been considered as a natural leader within the bloc, as it was one of Asean’s founding countries – along with Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – and is the largest economy and has the largest population in Southeast Asia.
In a video message at the conference, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said Indonesia is committed to contributing more to the group and she underlined the importance of a “collective leadership” among the bloc’s member states.
She added that Asean’s unity, centrality and solidarity is “not a given” and “must be nurtured.”
“Indonesia should reclaim leadership in Asean […] I see that Indonesia is reluctant to be a leader in Asean. I’d like to see it be more certain, more aggressive,” New Zealand Ambassador to Indonesia Trevor Matheson said.
While analysts have pointed to Indonesia’s reluctance to take up a leadership role in Asean, the Muslim-majority country has taken initiatives in addressing both the crisis in Myanmar and the escalating violence in Marawi City.
Thai Ambassador Pitchayaphant Charnbhumidol, who delivered a short remark during the event, borrowed US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric of “America First” to emphasize that the future of the bloc relies greatly on putting “Asean first.”
Charnbhumidol said that Asean must adopt what is known as “3R,” to be “relevant” to the people and their well being; “resilient” in order to address present and emerging challenges; and also “responsive” as a regional and global voice.
Asean has been recognized globally as an effective model of regionalism in peace and security, economic integration and institution building. Many have referred to the group as a “miracle” for successfully transforming a divided region into a united one and replacing mistrust between neighbors with cooperation.
However, the bloc’s considerable success has not been without shortcomings. Development gaps and maritime sovereignty disputes are few of the challenges that the region still needs to confront.
Indonesia’s former ambassador to the United States and founder of the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia, Dino Patti Djalal, said “Asean needs to figure out what is the next big vision.”
“For the next 50 years, coherence [between Asean member states] is very important. Relations between fellow Asean countries must take precedence from relations with countries outside of Asean. [We must put] Asean first,” Dino said.
He added that with the risk of Asean “losing dynamism and direction” or “eclipsed by bigger players,” bolstering grassroots efforts – aimed at improving knowledge of Asean and its relevance among the public – and realizing genuine economic community in the region must be taken into account to ensure its future success.