Asean on path to ‘self-destruction’, analysts say

Experts also said Jakarta, widely considered to be Asean’s natural leader, has been held back this year by the bloc’s divided voice on urgent matters.

Yvette Tanamal

Yvette Tanamal

The Jakarta Post


May 17, 2023

JAKARTA – With last week’s ASEAN Summit in Labuan Bajo, East Nusa Tenggara, failing to produce detailed, practical plans to address the region’s most pressing issues, foreign policy analysts are calling on Indonesia to act more independently of a bloc they say is all but immobilized and may be headed for “self-destruction”.

The experts also said Jakarta, widely considered to be ASEAN’s natural leader, has been held back this year by the bloc’s divided voice on urgent matters.

Indonesia has been under pressure as this year’s chair of the bloc to deliver on troubles looming large both within the region’s borders and beyond them, including the increasingly tense rivalry between Washington and Beijing and the Myanmar crisis, which has laid bare some of the group’s most critical weaknesses: excessive bureaucracy and rigidness.

And though Jakarta has pledged to improve the group’s mechanisms this year, experts have noted that the outcomes of last week’s summit still lacked cohesion, failing to go beyond broad declarations of intent.

Last week, at least 10 outcome documents were issued on top of Indonesia’s chair statement, mostly addressing regional cooperation, including on the electric vehicle (EV) industry, regional payment connectivity and public health matters, while two other documents discussed ASEAN’s relevance going forward, the group’s 20-year vision and improving its effectiveness as an institution.

The last item acknowledged the region’s complex political landscape and the need to improve the association’s responsiveness, though without much detail on how it planned to do so. Meanwhile, the 20-year vision document was still in its early stages.

Observers say the documents reached for uncontroversial, low-hanging fruit while still largely ignoring the bloc’s biggest troubles.

“We appreciate the efforts made for these declarations, though it is important to note that there have been no details shared so far, and a clear outline of a much-needed crisis management mechanism has yet to be manifested,” said Andrew Mantong, an international relations expert at the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) at a panel discussion in Central Jakarta on Monday.

Going it alone?

ASEAN, which relies on consensus-based decision-making, has been widely criticized as slow to act and, when it does, feeble, in part because of the divergent interests of its member states. In the case of great power rivalries, for example, countries closely aligned with one global competitor may stop negotiations in their tracks. Or, in the case of Myanmar, countries under autocratic or illiberal regimes may hold back meaningful democratic progress.

With patience wearing thin among analysts and observers alike, calls for Jakarta to go beyond the 10-nation association have begun to resurface.

“If ASEAN continues to do things the way it did during the 42nd summit, ASEAN is on the path to self-destruction,” said Rizal Sukma, a senior CSIS international relations expert and former Indonesian ambassador to the United Kingdom.

“We have to understand that we have an important asset as a country considered a middle power in the region. We may even have the capacity to go it alone. Some have expressed that if we cannot solve the crisis in Myanmar via ASEAN, then we should not use ASEAN,” added Andrew.

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a senior international researcher at the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), told The Jakarta Post separately that the frustration felt by think tanks was justified, since ASEAN had shown a long tendency of languishing in generalities amid great and pressing challenges.

“The nature of ASEAN is that it does have a maximum capacity. There is much room for improvement. It requires some shock therapy, I think, for it to realize that as long as it is not willing to go beyond agreeing at the lowest denominator, then it will continue to be a mere talking shop,” she said.

“At this point, matters that involve real issues or strategic decisions, they must be taken outside of ASEAN.”

Club of elites

Analysts have also noted Jakarta’s insistence on excluding non-governmental partners from the bloc’s key decision-making processes.

ASEAN, which declared itself a “people-centered” association with the establishment of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) in 2015, has among its primary goals a strong community-building process that involves non-governmental partners, including think tanks and civil society groups. Yet members of those bodies have expressed dissatisfaction with the prevailing arrangements, both under the political security and sociocultural pillars.

Indonesia’s diplomatic strategy in Myanmar and in negotiating a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (CoC), for example, have remained largely opaque for the relevant non-governmental bodies.

Lina Alexandra, head of the department of international relations at CSIS, said on Monday that ASEAN’s increasingly elitist processes had weakened the institution, while Dewi suggested that the bloc faced “regression” by alienating key partners.

Despite these shortcomings, Dewi said an association like ASEAN was still worth fighting for, as Southeast Asia, with its diverse ideologies and governments, needed an inclusive body to contain any possible disputes.

“Regardless of whether ASEAN can achieve anything substantive, we need it, lest we risk divisions that may be taken advantage of by external powers. We can never take peace for granted.”

While some Foreign Ministry officials, including minister Retno LP Marsudi, have admitted that the group needs structural changes to become more responsive, Jakarta officials claimed last week that the recent summit had addressed current challenges and prepared ASEAN going forward.

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