Indonesia Has to Stand By Asean

By Yohanes Sulaiman 31 May 2012

While Indonesia remains fixated with the Lady Gaga saga, the Philippines is embroiled in more important things: its conflict with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

But such a dispute should be worrisome for Indonesia, too. Not only because both China and the Philippines have close relations with Indonesia. Most importantly, the dispute could undermine the unity of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and Indonesia’s own strategic interests.

The goal of Asean when it was formed, to put it bluntly, was to keep the Communists out by improving cooperation among Southeast Asian states and by stimulating mutual economic growth, as it was believed that Communism could expand in poor countries due to its economic appeal to the masses.

But since the end of the Cold War, with the threat from the Communist bloc gone, the goal has subtly changed. Now the aim is to improve relationships among the member nations in order to increase their bargaining power in a more uncertain international environment. Following in the footsteps of the European Union, the Asean nations also believed that operating as one bloc, they could have more influence in international affairs.

Indonesia has a strong interest in strengthening Asean. With Asean strengthened, Indonesia will reap the benefits through an increase in prestige and clout in international affairs, as it is the natural leader of Asean, being the largest and most populous member state.

Thanks to their geostrategic position and combined wealth, Asean member states as a whole have the potential to be an influential power in international affairs.

Not surprisingly, when Indonesia became the chair of Asean last year, most of the key players in the region were in attendance: China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Australia and the United States.

The China-Philippines dispute, however, could threaten the unity of Asean.

The dispute is already escalating, with China holding 12,000 containers of the Philippines’ bananas at its ports, refusing to release them, and the Philippines insinuating that it has the United States’ backing.

The Philippines’ move is both understandable and troubling.

It is understandable because the United States is the only power in the region capable of acting as a counterweight to China.

It is true that since 1967 intra-Asean trade has risen drastically. It is true that Asean’s diplomatic strategies have worked in some important cases, most spectacularly in helping to rehabilitate Burma, also known as Myanmar, in the eyes of the international community. It did this through persistent diplomacy, in conjunction with internal developments in Burma itself that allowed the reformers to reap immediate benefits through normalization in its relationship with the United States.

At the same time, however, Asean’s military cooperation remains weak and that is troubling. In times of crisis, apparently the Philippines (and Vietnam) think the United States is far more reliable a partner than the Asean community.

This is not a good indication of the future of Asean, as when push comes to shove, security is the most critical test of a region’s solidarity and unity. Would, in a time of crisis, the Asean community split due to its members’ conflicting interests or would it remain together to create a solution beneficial to everyone?

While Indonesia should maintain good relations with China, the North Asian giant’s own economic and strategic importance means the archipelago must think of the long-term strategic geopolitical situation. This means Indonesia has to stand its ground and assist its fellow Asean members. Indonesia has to actively assume leadership, try to mediate the dispute between China and the Philippines and should the need ultimately arise, be ready to assist the latter.

Otherwise, the unity of Asean will remain in doubt. This does not bode well for Indonesia’s own strategic interests in the region.

Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer at the Indonesian Defense University (Unhan).