With little fanfare, the 18th Asean Regional Forum got under way in Bali this past weekend. Sadly, local coverage of the meeting is next to nonexistent.
Such a lack of attention and promotion from both the Indonesian government and the media can be attributed to the fact that neither find it to be as important as local political scandals threatening President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s popularity.
It is a shame, because the forum will be attended by key players in global security, such as the US secretary of state and the foreign affairs ministers from North Korea, South Korea, Japan and China.
In the news at least, the Japanese are taking the forum seriously. The Japan Times, The Mainichi Daily News, NHK World, Nikkei and Kyodo News have launched an English language Web site solely to provide news of this meeting. Seoul is also looking at this forum intently, as its national news outlet Yonhap reported that the South Korean foreign minister was willing to meet his North Korean counterpart during the forum.
The attendance of global luminaries and the massive attention from the international news outlets show how vital the diplomatic community finds the Southeast Asia region. Were Indonesia prepared, it could take advantage of the global spotlight to showcase its international ambition and leadership in the Asean region.
The lack of promotion from the government may simply be because it does not know what to expect from this forum, considering the intractable problems on the table — from the Cambodia-Thailand border spats that threaten Asean’s raison d’être to China’s growing influence in the region, including in the South China Sea. Not to mention the speculation that the forum may be used to jump-start the stalled negotiations on the Korean Peninsula.
The Cambodia-Thailand border spats seem not to be ending anytime soon, in spite of Yingluck Shinawatra’s victory in recent Thai elections. Even though Yingluck decisively won Thailand’s recent election and her elder brother, the fugitive former Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra, has a good relationship with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, she had to tread the waters carefully, lest her opponents accuse her of selling out to Cambodia.
At the same time, the South China Sea will be on everyone’s mind. The growing might of China, its swelling blue-water ambition — evidenced by the recent unveiling of its new aircraft carrier— and its perceived provocations toward Asean countries that have made claims to the Spratly and Paracel island chains will put the relevancy of Asean to the test. At this point, Asean has no common policy or structure set in place to respond to the rise of China and India. Nor does it have a plan to deal with the waning of the US’s international commitments.
While the former US defense secretary Robert Gates announced in Singapore during his visit last June that “the US defense engagement and investment in Asia was slated to grow further,” he warned NATO just a week later that “there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”
Even though such warnings were reserved for NATO, it also gave signals to other states that rely on US assistance that they have to keep “playing ball” lest the United States no longer provide military assistance due to the public resistance to continued spending of blood and money to be global policeman.
As the largest and the most populous state in Asean, Indonesia has the opportunity to rise to the occasion. Unfortunately, with the defense budget even lower than “the little red dot” city of Singapore and the likelihood that the budget will be slashed again in the near future, Indonesia’s commitment and ability to take the reins and lead regional security efforts are questionable.
Such diplomatic paralysis is deplorable and unfavorably compared to Indonesian diplomacy during Suharto’s New Order. Back in the 1980s, Indonesian foreign ministers Mochtar Kusumaatmadja and Ali Alatas directed foreign policy toward the dual objectives of ending of the Vietnamese intervention and also the civil war in Cambodia. These foreign policy objectives were pursued in spite of objections from some Asean members who were hoping that the Cambodian conflict would, in Dewi Fortuna Anwar’s words, “bleed Vietnam white.”
For Indonesia back then, what really mattered was preventing China from increasing its regional influence and, secondly, the spread of communism after the Vietnam War. While many Asean countries were not pleased with Indonesia’s initiatives, in the end its foreign policy was vindicated with the ending of the Cambodian civil war, the withdrawal of Vietnam and the expansion of Asean through the inclusion of Vietnam. At the same time, both Indonesia and China were aware of their growing importance in global affairs, which led to the rapprochements of both countries and, subsequently, the re-establishment of diplomatic relations in 1990.
Such imagination and audacity is unfortunately lacking in Indonesia’s foreign policy objective today. Instead of trying to lead Asean, to find a breakthrough to end the Cambodia-Thailand border conflict and to create a common regional response toward the rise of the influence of China and India and the withdrawal of the United States from global affairs, Indonesia seems more interested in just holding the forum. In fact, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa was quoted as saying that he did not expect any resolution to many of these issues at the talks. To put it simply, there is no goal, no international objective to pursue.
In the end, Indonesia needs to get its groove back. It has to start acting again as the regional leader. We can start by taking a careful look at our foreign policy objectives.
By Yohanes Sulaiman lecturer at the National Defense University and a researcher at Global Nexus Institute.