October 7, 2022
JAKARTA – Amid preparations for November’s ASEAN Summit less than 40 days away, when the baton of the chairmanship is set to pass from Cambodia to Indonesia, calls are mounting for Jakarta to take decisive steps to address the Myanmar political crisis while juggling an abundance of other challenges that will test the Southeast Asia bloc’s unity.
The 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits in Phnom Penh, Cambodia will see Indonesia take on the chairmanship of Southeast Asia’s premier regional organization next month, just two days before it hosts the Group of 20 Summit in Bali. The high-level forums face tremendous upheaval amid rocky geopolitics and a battered global economy.
In identifying what issues Indonesia should prioritize as the next ASEAN chair, Southeast Asia analysts say Jakarta ought to ascertain practical steps for implementing some of the group’s existing and impending documents.
Among those are the expedition of the South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC), working out practical procedures for the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) and most importantly – reviewing the five-point consensus (5PC) on the Myanmar coup crisis.
“ASEAN centrality and credibility are at stake here. […] After the [failures] in the implementation of the five-point consensus, the ball will soon fall in our laps and we cannot afford to fail,” said former foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda in a recent discussion.
“Taking into account the development on the ground in the past two years, [there must be] a step-by-step process toward a workable solution for the people of Myanmar and ASEAN,” he added.
The 5PC is an ASEAN peace initiative agreed to last year by the region’s nine leaders and Myanmar’s military leader Min Aung Hlaing, which calls for an immediate cessation of violence, dialogue among all parties, the appointment and the deployment of a special envoy as well as humanitarian assistance from ASEAN.
While the consensus was hoped to be a consequential document in de-escalating the crisis, the junta’s lack of commitment had prompted calls for an evaluation of the agreement and an alternative solution to the crisis. Seeing an apparent lack of progress, experts seem to think ASEAN should be flexible in adjusting its mechanisms.
“Indonesia must have clear and immediate measures to deal with the Myanmar crisis. If necessary, [it] must lead ASEAN to strengthen the mechanism dealing with the crisis. A range of options may include revising the [ASEAN] Charter,” said Vu Le Thai Hoang, director general of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam’s Institute of Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies.
“Jakarta should also bear in mind that innovation in the institutional building of ASEAN has always been [part of] Indonesia’s portfolio. […] In a time of great power competition and pressing internal challenges, Jakarta will need extra efforts to keep [its] legacy.”
Besides the 5PC, efforts to implement other documents such as the AOIP must also be made, experts insisted. Lina Alexandra, head of the international relations department at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said that while the AOIP is a “much-needed document”, there have been “deep concerns that [it] is not moving anywhere”.
“The AOIP defines our stance and viewpoints on the Indo-Pacific [for] navigating between the challenges and opportunities presented by the geopolitical and geo-economic dynamics in the region,” said Lina.
“[But] we have to admit that the AOIP is not an actionable document. It shares neither strategies nor concrete steps to realize the outlook itself.”
Meanwhile, CSIS senior fellow Rizal Sukma said: “Navigating the great power competition, including in the South China Sea and on the maritime domain, [is how] we can preserve the strategic autonomy of not only ASEAN, but also the whole of Southeast Asia.”
ASEAN also cannot afford to neglect the current needs of its collective citizens, he added. ASEAN’s success in neutralizing the instability brought about by COVID-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be a hallmark of the group’s competency, he asserted.
“On top of the mind of any ASEAN citizen is economic recovery. […] The ability to address that means that ASEAN is still relevant. We have to prove that ASEAN is still relevant,” Rizal said.
An early start
Recognizing the mountain of tasks it would have to triumph over next year, Indonesia has already begun its due diligence ahead of the chairmanship. Lobbying efforts have been carried out to expedite Timor Leste’s ASEAN membership, for example, on top of the shuttle diplomacy engaged by Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi to promote the region’s vision on the margins of last month’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, the United States.
“Of course, when we are talking about ASEAN we cannot refrain from the problem of Myanmar. We have conveyed our disappointment with the implementation of the five-point consensus,” said Retno in late September.
“But we also mentioned that ASEAN ought to march forward and steer clear of being held hostage by the situation.”
ASEAN ministers will convene a preparatory meeting this month in Jakarta without Myanmar to discuss the next steps on the crisis.
Retno also highlighted Indonesia’s continued commitment to the Indo-Pacific, sharing plans to host an ASEAN Indo-Pacific Infrastructure Forum next year, one of several new “pillars” to expand the AOIP that Indonesia is initiating.
“ASEAN must be strong. It cannot be weak, lest we stumble amid major power rivalries in the Indo-Pacific,” she stated. (tjs)