Let me start with what the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ( ASEAN ) meant to Indonesia as it was declared on Aug. 16, 1966, at the opening session of the 1966/1967 House of Representatives by former president Soeharto in his role as chairman of the presidium of the AMPERA Cabinet.
He declared at the session that Indonesia would reinvigorate “Maphilindo in a broader environment in order to be able to achieve a Southeast Asia cooperating in various fields of activity, specifically in the fields of economics, technology and culture. If an integrated Southeast Asia can be achieved, this area will be able to meet challenges, intervention from outside, both economically and militarily.
A cooperative Southeast Asia, an integrated Southeast Asia will be a very strong fortress and base to meet imperialism and colonialism in whatever form and from whatever direction it may come.”
It was the Konfrontasi policy that taught us that proclaiming a “free and active foreign policy” and co-designing the Asia-Africa conference and the Non-Aligned Movement ( NAM ), the Initiative of Five, as an attempt to thwart the Cold War, should be based on a solid geopolitical environment in Indonesia’s immediate neighborhood, Southeast Asia.
Maphilindo was too small as a starter to design regional stability and security. That was the reason why Soeharto broadened the regional base for creating a security zone around Indonesia. Indonesia’s foreign policy was focused on its immediate neighborhood. The NAM was then put on the back burner until 1992 when Jakarta hosted the 10th NAM Summit.
The regional integration Indonesia devised was to be achieved not through economic cooperation, but primarily through political cooperation, by developing each nation’s national resilience, so much so that collectively they would develop into regional resilience, by both recognizing the national sovereignty of each nation and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.
These principles were later formulated into the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation ( TAC ) in Southeast Asia, which became the legal basis for ASEAN’s cooperation ( Chapter I, Article 2 ) and remains sacrosanct in ASEAN’s principles of regional cooperation and developing relations with the outside world.
ASEAN thus become not so much the “cornerstone” of Indonesia’s foreign policy as its conceptual base: Southeast Asia’s stability, security and prosperity become Indonesia’s core strategic interests. An unstable, insecure Southeast Asia would have a direct impact on Indonesia’s stability, security and prosperity.
Furthermore, Southeast Asia, in Indonesian eyes, should be independent, capable of upholding its autonomy in the rivalry between and competition of extra-regional powers. Indonesia’s response to the Sino-US rivalry is a “hedging strategy”, specifically directed towards the uncertainty in actions of both the US and China in the region.
TAC was the basis for extra-regional countries to join the East Asia Summit inaugurated in Kuala Lumpur in 2005 with ASEAN in the center, as the driving force. China, Japan and South Korea became party to the treaty, joined by India, New Zealand and Australia, and later the United States and Russia in 2011. The external parties, and also China and the United States accept ASEAN’s centrality in this equation as it accords with their strategic interests.
The new regional architecture with ASEAN as the center is primarily intended to incorporate the big powers, China and the United States of America, as well as India, Russia and Japan in the design of a peaceful, surprise-free Asia-Pacific. A region devoid of conflicts, including in the South China Sea. Lest we forget, Indonesia proposed that India be added to the ASEAN plus three set up. As India’s addition alone would have been too obvious as a political counterbalance to China, Indonesia proposed that Australia and New Zealand be added to the set up to become the ASEAN plus six configuration, which then became the East Asia Summit.
The full development of Indonesia’s foreign policy is highly dependent on how stable ASEAN and its wider security area are, encompassing the wider East Asia region. Hence, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s government’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the extra-regional world, and more specifically the great powers, Marty Natalegawa’s concept of “dynamic equilibrium”, of urging, together with other ASEAN members, “peaceful coexistence among the great powers in Asia” are expressions of Indonesia’s attempts at developing Indonesia’s foreign policy in a stable, secure and prosperous Southeast Asia or ASEAN.
An unstable and insecure Southeast Asia will force the government to turn its attention inward and reinstate solidarity in ASEAN and collectively face the external powers that are considered to be the main cause of instability and insecurity. This is Indonesia’s primary task in sustaining ASEAN’s solidarity and cooperation.
However, what happened in Phnom Penh at the 2012 ASEAN Ministerial Meeting and the ASEAN Summit proved that consolidating ASEAN’s cooperation and solidarity is still a huge task. Indonesia’s initiative in finding a solution to the disharmony among the ASEAN member states at the Phnom Penh meeting in July 2012 by producing the six-point “consensus”, was more an act of firefighting rather than an act of affirming ASEAN’s stance of rejecting non-interference, by any external power, in its affairs in accordance with TAC.
Similarly, at the close of the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh on Nov. 18, 2012, when the summit chairman said that there was an “agreement” not to internationalize the South China Sea issue, this was challenged by the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, by immediately submitting letters formally disagreeing with this view, which forced the chairman to delete the reference, ASEAN again acted as a firefighter.
Frustration with a member country for not holding the ASEAN line has frequently occurred in ASEAN’s history. That was clear from the very beginning. The difficulty of nurturing regional cooperation through harmonizing each member nation’s interests with the regional goals was already identified by Singapore’s first foreign minister, S. Rajaratnam, in 1967, at ASEAN’s creation:
“We must think not only of our national interests but posit them against regional interests: that is a new way of thinking about our problems. And these are two different things and sometimes they can conflict. Second, we must also accept the fact, if we are really serious about it, that regional existence means painful adjustments to those practices and thinking in our respective countries. We must make these painful and difficult adjustments. If we are not going to do that, then regionalism remains a utopia.”
His second reminder was much more serious: “We want to ensure a stable Southeast Asia, not a balkanized Southeast Asia.”
Hence, ASEAN’s tremendous task is indeed to remain relevant and self-confident and resilient in the unfolding power game in the wider region of East Asia. ASEAN is challenged with “maintaining the centrality and proactive role of ASEAN as the primary driving force in its relations and cooperation with its external partners in a regional architecture that is open, transparent and inclusive,” as the ASEAN Charter directs us.
And this should be the stance of Indonesia’s foreign policy beyond 2014.
The writer is a senior researcher at the Center for Political Studies, Indonesian Institute of Sciences ( LIPI ), Jakarta.