By Kavi Chongkittavorn
Published on May 2, 2011
When the Asean leaders meet for the first time later this week in Jakarta, new challenges await Indonesia as the chair. The ongoing Thai-Cambodian conflict, the status of the 2014 chair, the membership of Timor Leste and the common platform for Asean beyond 2015 are key issues that can make and break the 44-year organisation. In contrast, myriad other problems related to the realisation of an Asean Community in 1,328 days need to be managed without exchanges of vitriol, bullets and mortar fire.
From the beginning, Indonesia has fixed a very high bar as the 18th Asean chair.
By breaking with the Asean tradition of the chair's rotation system -swapping with Brunei - the world's third largest democracy wants to ascertain other upcoming chairs of major summits, including the G-20, will not face future disruption.
The successful chairing of Asean this year will set a new compass for the country's diplomacy and help to define its role in the region and international community at large.
However, the unexpected eruption of border skirmishes between Thailand and Cambodia in early February and late last month has threatened to derail Indonesia's grand strategy. It has zapped the host's overall energy away from the agenda of an "Asean community in a globalised community of nations." After the UN Security Council referred the border conflict to Asean in mid-February, Indonesia moved quickly to display leadership by facilitating dialogue between the two neighbours and serving as observers to monitor the border and establish a permanent ceasefire.
During the past five weeks, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has been hard at work to have the 30-member Indonesia Observers Team, 15 on each side, on the ground ahead of the upcoming Asean summit. His aborted trip last Monday to Bangkok and Phnom Penh indicated the complexity of facilitating any resolution of intra-Asean conflict. Unknowingly, Marty has entered on a new and untested Asean turf in conflict resolution and reconciliation.
The remaining eight months are crucial to set the Asean house in order. Any spill over to the next chair, Cambodia, would have adverse effects on Asean, as the chair would be a conflicting party. A general election is scheduled in Cambodia next year as well.
For the past 14 years, Asean has been unable to assert any peer pressure on the pariah regime of Burma. It was a bit odd that President Thein Sein would have the audacity to ask their colleagues to rubber stamp his legitimacy by permitting the new administration to host the 2014 chair. As of last week, Naypyidaw had not yet responded to the grouping's overture to dispatch a team of Asean senior officials, headed by the chair, to assess the country's readiness.
Several members have reiterated that the 2014 chair is not automatic and should be further deferred until Burma has agreed to the appeal and fulfilled the Asean charter. The often asked question is: Will Asean put its last stick to good use?
An equally divisive issue is the 11th membership of Asean. Timor Leste informed Asean in early March that it wanted to join the club now — a big jump from the 2015 deadline. Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand support the inclusion this year while Singapore would like to postpone it for a few years. The lack of consensus raises the spectre that Indonesia's chair has been linked to the speedier admission. The region's most impoverished nation was part of Indonesia until its independence in 1999. Lack of English-speaking human resources and poverty have been cited as key obstacles. Singapore fears it would further delay the Asean economic integration and realisation of the Asean Community.
Timor Leste, the supporters argue, should be integrated soonest within the Asean family despite all the shortcomings. Leaving this young nation alone would be precarious and subject it to non-Asean influence that could be detrimental to the grouping's interest in the future. For good for worse, Asean has already lived through years of ups and downs with old and new members in various Asean cooperative schemes. Some of the new members contend that no conditions should be placed for admission of a new member. Quite unique, however, has been the attitude of Thailand, which sees Timor Leste, a young democracy, as an inspiration for Asean's people-centred community.
More than Asean's leaders would like to admit that Timor Leste's membership could be a test case of new Asean leadership. Ironically, Dili's status will be the weathervane to where the grouping's real leadership is heading. For decades, Singapore was the prime mover and shaker in Asean's pivotal schemes, covering all aspects of activity. However, since the 2003 summit which gave birth to the Bali Concord II, Indonesia, along with its burgeoning democracy, has expanded its vision and influence on the organisation where it used to be a puller.
The outcome of Timor Leste's deliberation will to a certain degree impact on the current chair's ambitions beyond the Asean Community 2015. Indonesia's foreign policy in the past decade has been focused on finding solutions, building understanding and fostering consensus. Jakarta believes that Asean will be able to maintain its creditability and centrality through the establishment of an Asean common platform on global issues. Throughout its history, Asean's members could be quite inflexible when it came to issues that involved their national sovereignty. Asean still has a long way to go concerning collective sovereignty and responsibility. Climate change, nuclear energy and territorial disputes could serve as litmus tests whether the Asean members could adopt common positions and policies on global issues.
The jury is still out whether Indonesia will be able to carry through such a broad and ambitious agenda.