July 17, 2023
JAKARTA – Indonesia remained adamant on prioritizing economic development and cooperation during the ASEAN high-level meetings this week in tune with its chairmanship theme of “epicentrum of growth”, but critics say the focus on the economy could undermine progress on regional security issues.
The focus on the economy was evident in President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s remarks to foreign ministers of ASEAN members and partners during a courtesy visit in Jakarta on Friday.
Jokowi told the ministers of his economy-foremost approach to the region and the theme of Indonesia’s chairmanship, ASEAN as an epicenter of growth, that underscores the bloc’s convening power, which could be undermined by zero-sum thinking and one-upmanship.
He used the Javanese saying of “menang tanpa ngasorake” (winning without demeaning others) to call on all parties to become dignified winners together.
“ASEAN countries are developing countries that require the understanding, wisdom and support of advanced nations and partner countries to leave behind the zero-sum approach and seek win-win solutions,” he said.
Jokowi’s remarks come as the foreign ministers of ASEAN and its dialogue partners convened in Jakarta for a flurry of high-level meetings this week, grappling with a myriad of security issues such as the Myanmar coup crisis but also a focus on economic and development cooperation.
The economic focus was also written in the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting joint communique. One point highlighted from the document was the ministers’ determination to “build a resilient economic architecture serving as the center of regional economic growth and an engine for global growth through robust cooperation.”
Over the last decade, the Southeast Asia region has seen an increase in economic growth, as reflected in the increase of foreign direct investment (FDI) accepted by ASEAN member states and trade involving those countries.
Last year, ASEAN countries received a total of US$155.68 billion in FDI, nearly 70 percent more than the figure that flowed into the region in 2012 at $92.87 billion; although the inward flow dipped in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The same applies to trade, which increased from $1.87 trillion in 2012 to $2.63 trillion in 2022.
These figures, however, are relatively small when compared with other regions such as East Asia, and China on its own.
Meetings of ASEAN cannot escape the theme of the economy regardless of the latest geopolitical situation, experts have cautioned. While the bloc continues to grapple with geopolitical issues such as the Myanmar crisis and tensions in the South China Sea, economic issues are there to stay, no matter which member state currently holds the chairmanship.
“Even within the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, the tangible approaches are always focused on economic issues,” said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an international politics researcher with the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN).
But prioritizing economic issues might come at the expense of prolonging the main challenge that ASEAN faces in the shape of geopolitical crises. As for now, the junta in Myanmar is still inflicting violence on civilians and the territorial disputes in the South China Sea have yet to see significant progress.
“We can talk about the epicentrum of growth,” said Ahmad Rizky Umar, an international relations researcher at the University of Queensland, “but if we don’t settle the issue of Myanmar, it will set a bad precedent for Indonesia’s chairmanship”.
Another issue that ASEAN should be focusing on is the superpower rivalry between the United States and China. The bloc has tried to provide dialogue space between the two powers on the sidelines of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Jakarta.
“We maybe can squeeze in the issue of economic regionalism, but it won’t complete the work that needs to be done,” Ahmad said.
Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi said economic cooperation remained one of the top topics in the high-level ASEAN meetings this week despite the lingering security issues surrounding the region. The discussion on the economy garnered support from partnering countries, she claimed.
“This shows that despite the current [geopolitical] situation, Indonesia’s chairmanship is still focusing on keeping Southeast Asia as the epicentrum of growth. Fortunately, this is supported by all partner countries,” Retno said during a press briefing on Friday evening.
While putting the economy at the top, ASEAN is trying to do its best to maintain peace and stability in the region, Retno added, pointing out that “war is not mere history” but a current phenomenon that is still happening.
“That’s why we try to do our best in ASEAN to maintain peace and stability in Southeast Asia,” Retno said.
Read also: ASEAN to review stalled Myanmar peace plan
During the 13th East Asia Summit (EAS) Foreign Ministers Meeting on Friday, the Indonesian minister called the summit member states to strive for regional stability and not to let the Indo-Pacific region become another battleground.
“The Indo-Pacific must not only become a net contributor of growth,” Retno said, “but also a net contributor of peace that projects our paradigm of collaboration to other regions. We owe our people concrete results.” (kuk/vin)