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Chairing ASEAN: what does it mean for Indonesia in 2023?

Indonesia is once again the Chair of ASEAN in 2023. Muhammad Adimaja/Antara Foto

Despite many obstacles and challenges, including the Russia-Ukraine war and global recession, host nation Indonesia managed to ensure that the high-level conference held in Bali on November 15-16 2022 produced a joint declaration, known as the G20 Bali Leaders’ Declaration. It shows how Indonesia, under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, has tried to be a unifying force in the midst of global uncertainty.

Now Indonesia has shifted focus and attention to its next significant challenge: chairing ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in 2023.

This is the fifth time Indonesia has held the ASEAN Chairmanship – previously it was in 1976, 1996, 2003 and 2011. The handover of the ASEAN chairmanship from Cambodia to Indonesia was carried out at the ASEAN Summit last November.

Amid the current global geopolitical uncertainty, there are at least three major challenges Indonesia will face during its chairmanship of the largest regional forum of the Southeast Asian countries. These include bringing ASEAN nations together on global issues; strengthening regional cooperation; and pushing for more, not less, multilateralism.

1. Keeping ASEAN united on global issues

As chair, Indonesia is responsible for leading various ASEAN efforts in solving regional and global crises.

ASEAN countries are currently fractured on big issues, like the South China Sea and Myanmar. Each ASEAN member state has different position, perspectives and interests on the matter.

This condition has made ASEAN member states vulnerable to be divided and exploited by major powers.

China and the United States are currently competing for influence as part of the global rivalry between the great powers. South East Asia is strategically located in the middle of Indo-Pacific, a region winning increased attention from both policy makers and experts in recent years.

Not only does Indonesia need to take into account the interest of ASEAN member states, it also needs to balance competing interests from abroad.

2. Strengthening regional cooperation

Even though Indonesia is the largest country in ASEAN, and has introduced regional breakthroughs in the past, Indonesia cannot push through challenges alone. Indonesia needs to build consensus among members that have different national interest and goals.

Thus, Indonesia needs to embrace ASEAN member states to strengthen regional cooperation where there are less contention and more convergence of interest.

Issues such as food security and resilience, maritime security and transnational crimes can be places to start seeing ASEAN’s importance to member countries. These so-called “low-hanging fruit” issues are plentiful, and Indonesia can spearhead effort at regional level to push for further ASEAN cooperation on them.

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war on the global supply chain and economy should show ASEAN countries they need a stronger cooperation at a regional level, and the value of working within ASEAN’s framework rather than pursuing policies unilaterally.

One successful example of this is on pandemic preparation, with the setting up of ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases at the 15th ASEAN Health Minister Meeting in Bali.

ASEAN has established this centre so its members can be better prepared for the next pandemic.

3. Pushing for a return to multilateralism

Indonesia needs to push for “multilateralism”, which is currently under threat by the proliferation of “minilateralism”. Failure to do so will push ASEAN to the periphery and at the mercy of great powers.

Multilateralism can be defined as international cooperation between three states or more. “Minilateralism” does not have a specific definition, but for this article, I am using the definition as:

the smallest possible number of countries needed to have the largest possible impact on solving a particular problem with the number of countries varied depending on the problem.

In recent years, minilateralism has facilitated the emergence of institutions such as AUKUS (a trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK, and the US, for the Indo-Pacific region) and QUAD (the Indo-Pacific Quadrilateral Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the US).

These institutions have become threats to ASEAN role in the region, because they tend to discuss and craft exclusive policy with minimal ASEAN involvement.

Western countries have been increasingly trying to counteract China’s power in the Indo-Pacific region using QUAD and AUKUS, instead of working with ASEAN.

For example, in November 2022, Japan hosted the QUAD’s Naval Exercise Malabar 2022 in the Philippine Sea, off the coast of Japan. It involved at-sea exercises with naval ships, aircraft and military personnel from Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.

China criticised the naval exercise, calling it as an effort to curtail and contain China growing influence in the region.

To counter minilateralism and strengthen multilateralism, Indonesia should push for an ASEAN-led forum, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, involving not just the great powers but also regional and middle powers like Japan and South Korea.

Any dialogues with them should not focus on controversial, sensitive issues, such as the South China Sea dispute. Instead, they should focus on issues where there are shared common interests, such as connectivity, climate change and maritime security.

Involving middle powers such as Japan and South Korea will shows ASEAN centrality and, if successful, will also show that multilateralism – especially an ASEAN-backed process – is still active and relevant.

Keeping great power struggles at bay

The challenges Indonesia is facing as ASEAN Chair are plentiful, but they are not insurmountable.

All of the above issues will be part of a wider effort for Indonesia to prevent ASEAN from becoming the next battleground for great power politics.

Indonesia needs to led ASEAN in strengthening and deepening ASEAN cooperation on multiple sectors to increase its resilience from outside influence.

If Indonesia is able to circumvent the obstacles, navigate the geopolitical situation and create regional consensus, Indonesia could turn the challenges into opportunities that will benefit not just itself, but the region as a whole.

The question is, does our government has the political will to do it?

Only time will tell.

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