Labuan Bajo summit to take on ASEAN housekeeping

Some of the region’s most pressing issues, such as the South China Sea dispute, geopolitical tensions and the Myanmar crisis have long remained unresolved.

Yvette Tanamal

Yvette Tanamal

The Jakarta Post


People pose with the newly set-up ASEAN logo, as Indonesia officially assumes the group's chairmanship following a ceremony in Jakarta on Jan. 29.(AFP/Goh Chai Hin)

May 4, 2023

JAKARTA – Amid layered challenges lingering outside and inside of Southeast Asia, the upcoming ASEAN Summit would seek to improve some of the association’s long-standing mechanism issues as well as finalize several of its short-term goals, including human trafficking and Timor Leste membership, Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi said.

Ensuring ASEAN’s relevance and centrality amid an ever-dynamic global landscape, shielding the region’s economic stability and establishing a solid vision of ASEAN’s future were all parts of the lengthy to-do list for the summit that would commence in less than 10 days, in Labuan Bajo, East Nusa Tenggara, Retno said in a recent interview.

Meanwhile, experts increased their expectations that the week-long meeting leading up to the 42nd ASEAN Summit would show part of Indonesia’s hand, after over four months of taking the “quiet diplomacy” route to tackle some of the region’s most sensitive issues.

Indonesia’s chairmanship, themed ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth, came as the region was faced with tremendous tribulations, both stemming from external geopolitical tensions and internal challenges.

Some of the region’s most pressing issues, such as the South China Sea dispute, geopolitical tensions and the Myanmar crisis have long remained unresolved.

Amid heightened tensions felt across Southeast Asia, recent surveys showed the public’s dwindling confidence in the association, naming “slowness and ineffectiveness” as reasons for their concern.

But Jakarta has been insistent that ensuring ASEAN’s relevance is among their primary priorities, a pledge it has repeated since January.

The 42nd summit, to be attended by only ASEAN members without its external partners, sought to do the bulk of the association’s housekeeping, Retno said.

“ASEAN can only matter if it is strengthened. […] Other than reinforcing our unity and centrality, we must also increase our capacity to face the challenges of tomorrow,” the minister said in a Friday interview. “This includes the ability to respond in a timely manner during an emergency, also strengthening the institution’s resilience and agility.”

An outcome document detailing the matter would be published at the summit, she said, accompanied by another paper on the ASEAN Post-2025 Vision toward ASEAN 2045.

While next week’s meeting will discuss many of these issues, the implementation process will only take place at the 43rd summit, scheduled for the end of the year.

The ASEAN vision paper, currently drafted by a high-level task force, would be submitted to the leaders during the summit for further guidance, according to Retno. Also on Friday, the Foreign Ministry released a statement that the draft “will be visionary, inspiring, comprehensive, robust and inclusive”.

Other documents tackling short-term goals, including one to address human trafficking and to combat the misuse of technology by traffickers, and a roadmap for Timor Leste’s full membership to ASEAN, would also likely come out next week, she said.

On the economic front, several “concrete partnerships” are expected to be discussed, including addressing partnerships in health, migrant workers, regional villages and the electric vehicle (EV) ecosystem.

“What does it matter if we are strong and resilient [but without economic growth]? These economic partnerships would additionally also act as agents of stability and peace for the region,” Retno said.

Anticipating the upcoming flurry of meetings, the minister reaffirmed ASEAN remained neutral amid the competition between the United States and China, adding the region would not become a theater of contention as commanded by the ASEAN Charter and its outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).

“The AOIP is our new instrument to deal with the current security concerns. At its core, the AOIP champions inclusivity,” she said.

About time

Acknowledging the plethora of troubles within ASEAN, analyst Lina Alexandra of Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said Jakarta’s priority on strengthening ASEAN capacity was a “timely” endeavor, noting the latest developments in the region had put a spotlight on an incredible need for an internal revamp.

“The rivalry [between the US and China] has also turned toxic. What is it going to do? It’s an incredibly arduous challenge that requires ASEAN’s reformulation and rejuvenation so that it can be a meaningful organization,” she told The Jakarta Post.

“Then the Myanmar crisis, which has opened a pandora’s box on ASEAN as an association, should become a trigger point for everyone to revisit the group’s mechanism,” she said.

In mid-April, Myanmar’s military junta conducted an airstrike in the country’s northwestern region of Sagaing, reportedly killing over one hundred people including civilians. It was referred to as the junta’s most fatal attack since overthrowing Naypyidaw’s democratic government some two years ago, and yet another indication the military remains defiant against the ASEAN-led peace mechanism, the Five-Point Consensus (5PC).

Jakarta, which has kept mute about its diplomatic strategies for the region’s most sensitive issues, including in Myanmar and the South China Sea, is expected to signal some of its progress in the upcoming summit as frustration begins to grow among observers and analysts alike.

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