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Can Indonesia lead Asean?

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa greets US Secretary of State John Kerry prior to a meeting of Foreign and Trade ministers during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation talks last month in Bali.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa greets US Secretary of State John Kerry prior to a meeting of Foreign and Trade ministers during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation talks last month in Bali.

The bloc continues to be hamstrung by a lack of leadership. Could Jakarta step up?

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 5 per cent over the next five years, with Indonesia leading the way at more than 6 per cent 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 the regional bloc has received from China, the US, 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 trouble-shooter 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 cosy 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 US 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 US, 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.

Great power politics also raises the chance that Asean could get pulled apart and polarised, fractured into competing sides. China already has Cambodia in its back pocket, and, under Xi Jinping, is actively courting the remaining Asean countries. The US 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 US 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 10 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 centre of India's "look east" policy.

As India, China, Japan and the US 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.

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.

Additionally, Asean lacks a major player with the bloc. Instead, what we have are mostly middle powers and developing countries. As a result, Asean is often rudderless, aimless.

Indonesia bills itself as a leader within Asean, and it has done some good things. It has been a key dispute mediator within the bloc, as its role in resolving intra-Asean disputes at the 2012 Asean Ministerial Meeting attests. Its economy powers growth throughout Asean countries. Its democracy, while far from perfect, is a model for other Asean countries. Its commitment to peace and cooperation has helped to create stability in Southeast Asia.

Indonesia has also been a source of interesting foreign policy ideas for the region. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has coined his strategic vision for Southeast Asia and Asia more generally as "dynamic equilibrium". The term nicely captures how Indonesia and other Asean members would like international political relations in Southeast Asia to look and operate: increasingly integrative, cooperative and peaceful.

In a 2010 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, Natalegawa argued that he sees dynamic equilibrium as "not quite in a classic balance-of-power situation where not one country is preponderant in our region, but in a more holistic and a more hopefully positive sense, in the sense that we don't wish to see our region dominated by one country, whoever that country is, but we wish to see inclusivity, more countries, the merrier - the more, the merrier; and for countries to be engaged in multi-sectoral issues, not only security but also political and also environment, economic, social-cultural, et cetera."

Unfortunately, Indonesia often acts passively and seeks to avoid controversy, within and beyond the bloc, which means that it doesn't give Asean the kind of steady leadership it needs on tough issues. For instance, it is hard to envision Indonesia standing up to China on its maritime claims and pressing Beijing to begin negotiating in earnest on a code of conduct for the South China Sea. Sure, economic ties with China will inevitably restrain Indonesia's desire to get tough with Beijing. But beyond that, Indonesia is reluctant to exert the kind of pressure on China that's needed at times.

Because Indonesia, or any other member for that matter, isn't strong enough or willing enough to defend and advance Asean interests and coordinate a unified foreign policy, those jobs inevitably fall to the Chair and the Secretariat. Unfortunately, those aren't good options. The Secretariat doesn't have the kind of power needed to break deadlocks and stimulate change. And the Chair, as was the case when Cambodia held the spot in 2012, can be swayed and influenced by outside powers.

If Indonesia wants to be the leader that it thinks that it is - and that the bloc desperately needs - then it needs to step up its game and fill the power vacuum that exists within the bloc. This doesn't mean that it has to throw its weight around Southeast Asia, or flex its economic or military muscles. Instead, it can take the initiative by proactively putting ideas to solve the host of problems and difficulties that plague Asean - both the institution and its member countries - into action and galvanising domestic and regional support. This requires political will and persuasive skills, attributes compatible with Indonesia's preference for conflict avoidance, inter-state policy coordination and regional consensus building.

Alas, with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's term in office soon to end and a new parliament ready to take power, change in Indonesia's role within Asean is unlikely to be imminent. It will be up to the next set of leaders to decide whether to take Indonesia in a more proactive direction. Whichever direction they decide for Indonesia, let's hope they recognise what's at stake for Asean and Indonesia.

Brad Nelson is president and co-founder of the Center for Conflict and World Peace, a research organisation. He can be found on Twitter @BNNelson74.




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