ASEAN Chairmanship is a Different Animal than the G20 Presidency: Will Indonesia Seize Its Time in the Limelight?

Strategic Insight 001/2023

Muhammad Waffaa Kharisma

26 January 2023

The Verdict on Indonesia’s G20 Presidency 

Indonesia’s G20 presidency will undoubtedly come down as President Joko Widodo’s hallmark foreign policy achievement in office. Many around the world prophesized for the worst towards the future of the G20 following the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A couple of months prior to the G20 Summit in November 2022, even managing to secure attendance of all top leaders was considered a tremendous achievement.

Yet Indonesia largely exceeded the expectations of many. Under the leadership of President Widodo, Indonesia conjured an overall faultless organisation of the G20 Presidency. The G20 Summit was organised without a significant hitch. The grouping even managed to produce the G20 Bali Leaders’ Declaration, when many doubted it was achievable.

The Declaration represents Indonesia’s persistence in advocating for a degree of commitment between the world’s wealthiest nations to important global common concerns, many of which were crucial to the developing world. Many analysts rightly also observe the worth of the G20 forum as a platform to all the intimate sideline meetings, including the promising three-hour meeting between U.S. President Biden and Chinese President Xi.

The success was courtesy of President Widodo’s whole-of-government approach, galvanising a range of state capacities and agencies to secure a smooth flow of events. Indonesian diplomats, especially, face some tricky challenges, from ensuring smooth diplomatic protocols to brokering a position of comfort amidst differing views of the major powers. This latter effort was what produced the crafted passages that go into the Leaders’ Declaration. In the strategic calculation of global geopolitics, Indonesia managed to express the potential contribution, and worth, of a non-aligned country attempting to break the cycle of political polarisation among world powers.

Surely, plenty of observers would appreciate an Indonesia that takes a more principled stance in addressing the ‘War in Ukraine’.But 2022 produced an overall perfect ending for the Indonesian side, strolling far from the initial fear of the worst-case scenario. The G20 did not crumble under Indonesia’s presidency. Indonesia successfully stuck to its objective of carefully following its own strides and instincts, without being seen as overly conforming to anyone’s policy impulses, and evaded the risk of amplifying global political polarization. For Indonesia, the challenge now is whether it can invest the same energy towards its ASEAN Chairmanship.

ASEAN’s Pressing Security Context 

For Indonesia this year, expectations towards its ASEAN Chairmanship are as high as ever. In the past few years, security challenges in the Indo-Pacific have been evolving, requiring quicker and more concrete regional responses. Caught in between, Southeast Asia is entering a period of uncertainty, born out of external and internal concerns. From the outside, the trajectory of great power competition between the United States and China, notwithstanding other complex power dynamics such as the China-India or the NATO-Russia relations, is heading in an unfamiliar direction with competition in and around Southeast Asia. Tensions around the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula have increasingly involved close calls between deployed military assets. Although most were handled professionally between cool headed on-ground personnel, fear of escalation and possible potential miscalculation remains on the horizon, noting the current trend of mistrust and rivalry between great powers.

Moreover, signs of a potential arms race are also there. Countries inside and outside Southeast Asia are procuring the latest technology to precision missile systems, combat aircraft, nuclear-powered submarines, or even consider acquiring nuclear weapons. Security, as opposed to being treated as common public goods, is becoming increasingly referred to as pure national pursuits.

From the inside, internal crisis around Southeast Asia’s stance on the long-standing South China Sea dispute and the Myanmar crisis have added to the challenge of the region’s road to pandemic recovery.

Amidst all these challenges, achieving consensus between ASEAN members seems harder than ever, leading to multiple analyses over ASEAN’s inability to act as a collective in addressing these challenges. Such a condition is even more apparent at times when regional dynamics impact countries differently (benefitting some and hurting others) or when member states differ in their political will to enforce principles of the ASEAN charter. The notion of ASEAN’s relevance, let alone ASEAN centrality, has been rendered less substantive.

Some observers even go so far as noting ASEAN’s relative fractures, now that one member, Myanmar, is being barred from the highest levels of ASEAN’s summits. Demand for an institutional transformation of the organisation has been echoed strongly by some member states. Member states have begun to call for a more proactive and effective ASEAN in responding to a regional crisis.

Transitioning From G20 to ASEAN 

Right at the end of the G20 Leaders’ Summit, President Widodo expressed his wish for the G20 to continue to be an economic forum, steering clear from polarising geopolitical pressures, so that it can continue to focus on a common agenda of economy and development. For the President, this priority should not be sacrificed in the face of geopolitical interests. Such spirit continues to be relevant for ASEAN. Political differences between countries and dialogue partners should not prevent ASEAN and partners from working on agendas of common interests.

Compared to the G20, however, ASEAN has more leverage to address security issues, despite its limits. And unlike in the G20, Indonesia’s leadership is much more welcomed and needed in ASEAN. Particularly, Indonesia’s leverage and track record in ASEAN allows it to pursue a more ambitious role in addressing political-security issues, from contributing positively or even providing thought leadership towards the resolution of a regional crisis, dissuading escalations of tensions between major powers, facilitating opportunities to build trust between rivals, or even lever a more united ASEAN.

As Chair of ASEAN, Indonesia is expected to explore more active roles in crisis mitigation and management. Neither “countries’ commitment to funding,” “attendance in summits,” nor “the successful organization of meetings” between parties, which were considered as fair objectives in the G20, would be seen as indicators of a successful ASEAN Chairmanship.

In retrospect, compared to the G20, Indonesia might have a greater stake in ASEAN. For Indonesia, ASEAN’s autonomy, regional resilience, and ability to push and apply ASEAN-led regional solutions amidst the multitude of political pressures from major powers will also give it enough room to practice its independent and active foreign policy.

Indonesia’s experience from last year’s G20 has given us a glimpse of the country’s ability as a regional leader. One key modality, which Indonesia has managed to express at the G20, was the ability to encourage communication despite stalemates and act as a balancing force between differing opinions. Such a logic was also what led President Widodo to defy odds and invest in an effort to visit Ukraine and Russia back in June 2022, despite its limited leverage. Indonesia has earned a shot towards such role not only due to its growing economic presence, but also due to its track record in emphasising mutual respect and inclusiveness in foreign relations.

In ASEAN, though, Indonesia will have to take this effort to another level. Indonesia is expected to provide more leadership capacity, through providing a more principled voice and convincing its neighbours in the view of formulating the best way forward for ASEAN that could boost common security for all its members and beyond, rather than simply recognising and summarising differing opinions. In ASEAN Plus meetings, particularly the East Asia Summit, Indonesia is expected to present this united voice from its ASEAN counterparts as a leverage to encourage certain expected behaviour and common ground between competing major powers, such as to always strive to prioritise dialogue and diplomatic solutions.

Apart from continuing processes already in the pipeline, such as in operationalising the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific or in working towards the ASEAN Maritime Outlook, Indonesia should continue to push for preventive diplomacy around the organisation of the East Asia Summit, to continue progressing with the South China Sea Code of Conduct, and to establish a working framework to provide a more conducive environment surrounding the Myanmar crisis, via focusing on the dialogue component of ASEAN’s Five Point Consensus.

Encouraging inclusive and less confrontational behaviours conducive to international and regional norms, to prevent the region from going into a logic of pure balance of power, is not outside of Indonesia’s ability. The absence of conflict between ASEAN member states has not been the fruit of mere balance of power, but also due to the persistent investment of its members on nurturing shared beliefs and norms in their interdependence and the importance of common regional security.

At the G20, Indonesia has shown the ability to facilitate a path towards consensus and a final product via patient building of small “bridges” between divisions. As ASEAN Chair, the same energy should be applied as a foundation for a more ambitious problem-solving role that could be felt beyond its one-year chairmanship.

Muhammad Waffaa Kharisma is a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta.

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