November 17, 2022
JAKARTA – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is slated to hand over ASEAN’s rotary chairmanship to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo at the closing ceremony of the regional grouping’s three-day gathering in Phnom Penh tomorrow.
Many expect more progressive initiatives to flourish in ASEAN under Indonesia’s leadership and that pending issues like the inclusion of Timor Leste as the bloc’s 11th member will be settled.
Indonesia’s Group of 20 presidency, which will host its leaders’ summit in Bali next week, will certainly strengthen President Jokowi’s credentials among his regional peers. His ability to mobilize bolder measures against the ruthless Myanmar junta without giving an impression that Indonesia is dictating the group is another reason why he is worthy of the ASEAN leadership.
The ability of ASEAN to establish the world’s largest economic trade bloc, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), is another testament to Indonesia’s leadership. The RCEP accounts for 30 percent of the world’s population, GDP and trade, turning it into the main driver of global growth for years to come.
When hosting the ASEAN Summit in November 2011, Indonesia, the region’s largest economy, initiated the formation of the RCEP along with ASEAN’s dialogue partners China, Japan, Australia, India and New Zealand. After eight years of negotiation, RCEP was officially approved by all the 10 members of ASEAN and five dialogue partners. India withdrew from the negotiations for domestic interests.
Other ASEAN dialogue partners such as the United States and Canada did not join the trade bloc. Back then US president Barack Obama was very ambitious about forming the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was clearly aimed at containing China’s rise. Donald Trump took over from Obama in 2017 and immediately scrapped the TPP agreement without consulting other members, including Japan.
In the absence of the US, Japan and Australia tried to rebuild the TPP into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). But when Joe Biden took office in 2021, not only did he reject the new partnership scheme, he also proposed a new initiative called the Indo-Pacific Economic Partnership (IPEF). It can be said IPEF has killed the CPTPP.
Following the ASEAN Summit on Friday, the regional leaders hold bilateral summits with their dialogue partners from China, South Korea, Japan, India, Australia, the US and Canada on Saturday. Another meeting will be arranged between the ASEAN leaders and United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres.
On Sunday, the Southeast Asian leaders will gather with all dialogue partners in the East Asian Summit. And after that is over, Hun Sen will hand over the ASEAN chairmanship to Jokowi, but the term will be effective only on Jan. 1, 2023.
There is little possibility that Hun Sen will repeat his 2013 stunt, when as the ASEAN chair he vetoed the decision of ASEAN leaders to voice their concern about China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea. The PM removed the expression of concern from the final draft, triggering protests from other ASEAN leaders.
Hun Sen has sprung some surprises instead. He criticized Myanmar’s military junta after it denied him access to the opposition figures in his capacity as the chair of ASEAN. When assuming the ASEAN chairmanship, Hun Sen had appeared to show flexibility to the military junta that toppled the democratically elected government of Aug San Suu Kyi in February 2021.
During the ASEAN summit President Jokowi is expected to push for much harsher actions against Myanmar junta leader Gen. Aung Min Hlaing. The ASEAN leaders should have the guts to temporarily suspend Myanmar’s ASEAN membership until the military stops the atrocities against people in the country.
The regional leaders have barred the junta from attending official functions of ASEAN, but this punitive measure is almost meaningless in the goal of forcing the junta to implement the five-point consensus, which would restore peace and bring the nation back on track for democracy.
The public is also wondering if the ASEAN leaders will decide to invite representatives of ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, including the National Unity Government (NUG), in future ASEAN meetings as a tough move to pressure the junta.
The summit this weekend may also see the ASEAN leaders call more strongly for China to do what it takes to complete negotiations on the non-binding Code of Conduct on the South China Sea, simply because there has been progress in the talks about the high seas. China has claimed sovereignty over nearly the whole maritime territory, at the expense of other claimants Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Indonesia stakes no claim in the natural resources-rich waters, but several times, Chinese fishing boats were found poaching in Indonesian waters that they claim as their traditional fishing grounds. President Jokowi has on several occasions warned of zero tolerance for any violation of Indonesia’s sovereignty. The waters could become a source of conflict or even limited military clashes in the future if no mutual understanding is reached.
Two days after the ASEAN meeting, Jokowi will preside over the G20 Summit in Bali. Indonesia is the only ASEAN state in the world’s 20 largest economies, while East Asia is represented by China, Japan and South Korea. The two-day meeting in Bali is expected to feature discussions and debates on the food and energy crises facing the world, as well as imminent global recession.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s threat to unify Taiwan through militarily actions and the nuclear threat spread by North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un will also highlight the conversations among the leaders.
After the G20 Summit, the region will host another world summit, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, which will be hosted by Thai PM Prayuth Chan-ocha on Nov. 18-19. Indonesia has been active in APEC from the very beginning.
Another key foreign policy agenda item for Indonesia next year is to accelerate the implementation of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, with ASEAN playing the central role. It will not be an easy undertaking because although many countries acknowledge the pivotal role of ASEAN, major powers like the US, China, Australia, India and Japan have their own concept about the Indo-Pacific.
Amid the uncertainty in the global economic and political landscape, ASEAN can expect a more progressive leadership of Indonesia in addressing regional issues like the Myanmar crisis and world peace and stability. Godspeed.
The writer is a senior editor at The Jakarta Post.