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Jakarta Post

Whither the ASEAN capital?

  • Editorial Board

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Sat, August 24, 2019   /   08:15 am
Whither the ASEAN capital? President Joko Widodo and ASEAN secretary General Lim Jock Hoi during the inauguration of the new ASEAN secretariat building in Jakarta, August 8, 2019. The Inauguration was held in conjunction with the 52nd anniversary of ASEAN. (JP/Seto Wardhana)

"Do you expect us all to move with you?” That might have been the question resonating in the minds of many Jakarta-based diplomats when the government first hinted that it was planning to relocate the administrative capital to somewhere on the island of Kalimantan.

Then on the eve of this year’s Independence Day celebrations, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo made a formal plea to lawmakers for their support to move the executive, legislative and judicial institutions away from Jakarta.

The plan, first envisioned decades ago without success, is especially confusing for diplomats from Southeast Asia, who have been serving in Jakarta since the establishment of the ASEAN Secretariat in 1981. On ASEAN Day earlier this month, Jokowi expressed his hope that the new ASEAN Secretariat building in Jakarta would see more use, so as to cut down on the high costs of travel attached to the group’s busy annual calendar of activities.

And while Jakarta has decidedly lagged behind other Southeast Asian cities like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok in terms of branding itself an ASEAN capital, the argument for moving the ASEAN Secretariat might be highly disruptive to the logistics of regional diplomacy.

On the one hand, moving the capital away from Jakarta’s notoriously congested roads may alleviate some of the burdens from heavily taxed resources needed to run a healthy government. But Jokowi’s infrastructure blitz in Kalimantan may need some time before it can compete with the ease of access to other ASEAN nations that Jakarta currently enjoys as a regional hub.

As the relocation master plan is still being tweaked, officials are failing to come up with answers to questions from members of the diplomatic community.

“Will the new capital have a diplomatic enclave, where new plots of embassy land translate to more costs?” “What will happen to regional offices previously accredited to the Kalimantan region?” “How long will the relocation process take?”

South Korea, in comparison, only finished moving the bulk of its ministries and agencies to the new administrative capital of Sejong City last year, after having first initiated the relocation project in 2012. Only the Presidential Blue House and the Foreign Ministry — along with accredited foreign embassies — remain in the current capital, Seoul, but by 2030, all government institutions should have been moved to Sejong.

So instead of moving the seat of ASEAN diplomacy to Kalimantan, the alternative would be to keep it in Jakarta, a financial, trade and cultural hub combined, permanently.

The United Nations Headquarters stands proudly in the heart of downtown Manhattan, while foreign embassies accredited to the United States are located in Washington, DC. Alternatively, the General Secretariat of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, the second-largest intergovernmental body after the UN, is located not in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh, but in the commercial hub of Jeddah.

To avoid any further headaches, the government must be able to clearly communicate its intentions and later follow through on its plan, or risk more than just a few confused looks by diplomats in the neighborhood.