• posted by Anindya Jun 2nd, 2011

    Jakarta’s leadership in Asean paves the way for an expanded global profile.

    1024px-Seal_of_ASEAN.svgSince assuming the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) earlier this year, Indonesia has made its leadership felt on multiple fronts, revealing the political weight of Southeast Asia’s most populous country. The new mood in Jakarta contrasts sharply with the defensiveness that marked Indonesian foreign policy in the long and chaotic aftermath of President Suharto’s fall from power in 1998.

    The border spat between Thailand and Cambodia provided an early test of Indonesia’s diplomatic mettle. The fighting is the deadliest ever seen between Asean nations since the organization’s founding in 1967. Since February more than 20 people have died and 85,000 have been displaced in skirmishes over ownership of the area surrounding the 11th-century Hindu temple of Preah Vihear, which lies in Cambodia. Fanned by domestic politics in both Thailand and Cambodia, the border clashes threatened to undermine Asean’s credibility as a regional peacekeeper.

    Both sides’ preferred approaches presented problems for Asean’s role as a mediator. Thailand, as the more powerful side, wanted to keep the border issue bilateral, which in this case would give Asean only a de minimis role. Cambodia sought to internationalize the issue, but it looked not to Asean but to the United Nations Security Council for a diplomatic platform.

    Into this impasse Jakarta sent Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia’s urbane foreign minister, who embarked on shuttle diplomacy that gave the organization a highly visible role in the crisis. He nudged the feuding neighbors toward bilateral consultations, thus acknowledging the Thai case for a bilateral solution. But he also convinced them to invite Indonesian observers to monitor the border region, thus “Aseanizing” the issue instead of leaving it to the U.N.

    At the time these and other measures seemed to have cooled the fighting. But since then the row has resurfaced, dominating the agenda of last month’s Asean summit. The agreement on Indonesian observers remains on the table, and Asean leaders have asked Jakarta to continue its mediation efforts. Since neither Bangkok nor Phnom Penh has disagreed with this approach, Indonesia’s chairmanship of Asean is proving to be a worthwhile diplomatic exercise, no matter which way the conflict ultimately turns out.

    The dispute in the South China Sea has also tested Indonesia’s leadership. Overlapping claims to the Spratly and Paracel Islands by China, Taiwan and four Asean states—Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei—have made the mineral-rich territories the site of tension for decades. But China’s own recent turn toward diplomatic assertiveness caused concern.

    Jakarta has worked to bolster Asean’s bargaining power in negotiating with China. Though most of the progress so far has taken the form of bilateral agreements between competing claimants, coordination on the matter was a high priority at last month’s Asean summit in Jakarta. A formal code of conduct for the South China Sea was put back on the table after a long period of dormancy, though much more still needs to be done if a serious upheaval is to be averted.

    Jakarta’s new diplomacy has not been uniformly successful, as in the recent tussle over Timor Leste’s bid to join Asean. Jakarta argued that isolating the former Indonesian territory from the rest of Southeast Asia would be politically destabilizing and economically unnatural. Yet other countries believed that economically and politically weak Timor Leste would detract from Asean’s goal of complete economic integration by 2015. Asean’s poorer members—Cambodia, Laos and Burma—fretted about aid being diverted to Timor Leste and away from them.

    Indonesia acknowledged that it would require special effort to bring Timor Leste up to speed economically with the rest of the region, pointing out that similar efforts had previously been made for other less-developed member states. It also noted that the oil- and gas-rich country would eventually become a net contributor to Asean. Nevertheless Asean members decided not to admit Timor Leste at their summit last month—a setback for Indonesia and like-minded Thailand.

    Likewise, Indonesia has not been able to get Asean to take a harder stance on Burma, where the junta continues to hold power despite a widely criticized election last November that installed a civilian government. Despite Jakarta’s best efforts to rally other member states, human-rights abuses in Burma will continue to cast a dark shadow over Asean.

    Nonetheless, these cases all point to Indonesia displaying a new boldness in pushing its case in Asean. The new mood in Jakarta should prevail even after its year-long Asean chairmanship is over. Indonesia is not only Southeast Asia’s largest country but is an emerging economic powerhouse. The country’s GDP grew 6.5% year-over-year in the first quarter of 2011, after 10 consecutive years in which output expanded by only 1.34% each quarter on average. The resilience of the Indonesian economy was demonstrated in the 2008 financial crisis, which afflicted most Asian economies but left Indonesia relatively unscathed.

    The numbers are impressive, but much more needs to be done to fight corruption and improve infrastructure across the archipelago. These deficiencies have not stopped Indonesia from being the only Southeast Asian country to become part of the G20. There is also talk of Indonesia joining the BRICS grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa: economically resurgent countries whose destinies will play an increasingly important role in the global economy.

    Indonesia has begun to think globally. Its active role in Asean has set the stage for an international profile more commensurate with its size and economic importance.

    Mr. Bakrie is vice chairman of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, CEO of Bakrie Telecom and chairman of Viva Media Group. He is also one of three presidentially appointed members of the Indonesian APEC Business Advisory Council.

    Article in The Wall Street Journal, Thursday, June 2, 2011.

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