As the largest member of Asean in terms of economic size and population, Indonesia’s position in the organization is analogous to the role of Germany in the European Union. Germany continues to support the integration of Europe out of a plausible expectation that there will be an increasing dependence upon its domination in the field of modern technology and industrial products.
When the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was established in 1967, Indonesia’s standpoint was very much dictated by the need to have a regional cooperation that could challenge the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. On top of that, the new nations in the region required political stability to facilitate their economic development.
In the 1980s and early 1990s two important things happened.
First, due to regional stability, countries in Southeast Asia were able to achieve sustained economic growth that eventually led to the gradual enlargement and deeper institutionalization of Asean.
And second, when Indonesia was under increasing pressure from the international community over human rights violations in East Timor, former President Suharto was deeply grateful to Asean nations for their support for Indonesia at the United Nations.
Moreover, while hiding behind the pretext of the uniqueness of so-called Asian values, first-generation Asean leaders like Suharto, Lee Kwan Yew, Mahathir Mohammad and Ferdinand Marcos developed a strong informal solidarity against Western leaders who criticized their authoritarian regimes. They became even more confident when the Chinese government joined in challenging the Western leaders.
When the Asian economic crisis hit the region in the late 1990s and Asean was apparently of no use at all in overcoming it, people began to question the authenticity of the common spirit of this regional cooperation. True, Asean did manage to establish the Asean Free Trade Agreement but its relative contribution to regional economic growth was insignificant.
Asean members cannot deny the fact that there is competition between them as they scramble for the same markets for their near identical export commodities in Japan, China, the European Union and the United States.
Entering the 21st century two important developments took place: First, at the domestic level, Asean members like Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand were struggling to substantiate their transition from old authoritarian regimes to more democratic political systems.
Along with this political process civil society groups in these countries began to consolidate themselves and demand a greater say in the process of policy making, not only domestically, but also at the regional level. It is now well understood that once you have a democratic process at the nation-state level it is almost impossible to deny the same process at the regional level.
The second important development in the 21st century is related to a surge in the process of economic liberalization at all levels. No country in Southeast Asia can escape the imperative of strengthening its own national competitiveness in order to benefit from global market opportunities.
Despite the fact inter-regional trade in Asean is relatively small compared to the groups combined trade with major external economic powers like China, Japan, South Korea, the European Union and the United States; Asean countries continued their commitment to the establishment of a single production base within the framework of the Asean Economic Community.
Those who defend the importance of the AEC argue that this is the only way Asean members can deal with the economic rise of China and India as destinations for foreign investment. However, rarely, if ever, do our political leaders explain in what ways the creation of this single production base is going to benefit the Indonesian people, especially at the grass roots level.
Indonesian foreign policy makers seem to assume that Asean’s increasing integration will automatically benefit Indonesia. This is precisely the reason why Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda always insists that Asean is the cornerstone of Indonesia’s foreign policy.
As a matter of fact, if Indonesia fails to develop the necessary political and economic institutions to respond to its own external challenges, other countries will exploit its weaknesses for their own benefit. Of particular importance in this context is how the Indonesian government creates a solid foundation for the country’s system of national competitiveness.
There are many factors that influence a nation’s level of competitiveness in a liberal market . I’ll focus on just two of them here.
The first is the Human Development Index, a measure the UN uses to evaluate quality of development in countries around the world. On this scale, Indonesia ranks among the lowest in Southeast Asia.
According to the UNDP’s 2007-2008 Human Development Report, Indonesia’s HDI was 107 out of 170 countries surveyed. Far below Singapore (25), Malaysia (63) and Thailand (78). What is more troubling is the fact Indonesia’s position is even below the relative newcomer Vietnam, ranked at 105.
A second major factor influencing competitiveness is that, despite the government’s serious efforts to eradicate corruption over the last few years, Indonesia remains one of the most corrupt countries in Asia.
With these discouraging conditions as a backdrop, we must rethink the idea that Indonesia should give such high priority to the centrality of Asean in the construction of our foreign policy. Does the primacy of Asean really serve our national interests or are other countries relying on the naivete of our foreign policy makers for their own strategic interests?
Even after the ratification of the Asean charter there is still a chasm between its optimistic words about solidarity among the people of Asean and the reality of intersocietal relations in the region.
While Asean leaders celebrate what they perceive as an increasing international recognition of this regional cooperation, too many Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia and Singapore continue to be treated as less than fellow human beings.
Unfortunately, because of its elitist nature, there is, as of yet, no mechanism in Asean to address issues like this. No wonder that in the eyes of Indonesian migrant workers Asean is just an exclusive club for the political elite, who care little about their suffering.
Our leaders still need to convince people that the focus on Asean in the nation’s foreign policy is truly in our national interest.
In the developing world it is most often the smaller countries that benefit from regional cooperation, because without such a mechanism they can easily be dominated by their larger neighbors. This theory is particularly relevant for Southeast Asia as we recall Indonesia’s aggressive foreign policy in the Sukarno era and the occupation of East Timor during Suharto’s rule.
Do policy makers need to give such a high priority to Asean or are other countries using Asean as an tool to co-opt Indonesia politically and economically?
Aleksius Jemadu is a professor of international politics in the Department of International Relations at Pelita Harapan University.