Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Indonesia's Role in ASEAN: The End of Leadership?

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Indonesia's Role in ASEAN: The End of Leadership?

Article excerpt


This article will examine Indonesia's role within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the light of the ongoing political and economic crisis that has afflicted Indonesia. To examine the role Indonesia seeks to play in ASEAN, it is important to examine Indonesia's foreign policy context, including a brief history of its involvement with ASEAN. A more detailed account will then be given of recent developments within ASEAN, including the forest fire problem, the financial crisis, membership enlargement, and the emerging debate over the traditional "non-interference" principle. Some comment on the recent Sixth ASEAN Leaders Meeting in Hanoi is also necessary. The article will conclude with some commentary on the implications of recent political and economic problems for Indonesia's status and role within ASEAN, together with some cautious forecasting.

It is important to note that ASEAN's great success was to achieve security by preventing the Balkanization of Southeast Asia. Whether ASEAN can go beyond this achievement remains an open question. The recent currency crisis has had some profound implications for the Asian region. Indonesia has been affected greatly by political and economic crisis. Its capacity to play a role in the wider region has come into question following events surrounding the leadership succession in May 1998. This has come at a time when ASEAN is regarded by many observers as being irrelevant to the troubles in the region, of which Indonesia's crisis is a large factor.

While Indonesia's domestic problems have left it unable to lead ASEAN at present, Soeharto's departure has coincided with a series of open public criticisms by ASEAN leaders of other fellow members. To understand Indonesia's future role in ASEAN, a series of questions must be examined: Will Indonesia continue to enforce "non-interference" in the post-Soeharto era? Or will the Habibie administration favour Thailand's proposed "flexible engagement" whereby comments on member states' internal affairs becomes permissible? Will ASEAN flag in its ability to undertake political and economic initiatives now that Indonesia's foreign affairs capability is significantly reduced? Have recent events in Southeast Asia strained bilateral relations between Indonesia and its neighbours to the extent that ASEAN will now become less cohesive? The answers to these questions are difficult to know in entirety; however, certain trends can be seen emerging. Most crucial of all, and a question that nobody can answer, is the future stability of Indonesia as a state, given its importance to the Southeast Asian region.

Indonesia's Foreign Policy Context

Soon after Indonesia's independence, Vice-President Mohammad Hatta characterized its foreign policy as "free and active" (bebas aktif), a guideline that continues to this day. Essentially, this implied nonalignment and equidistance between the superpowers. Non-alignment became the core of Soeharto's foreign policy, which was part of Indonesia's opposition to the colonial nations and fear of neo-colonialization through international trade and commerce. Soeharto's emergence as leader in 1966 marked a change in foreign policy, but not in its underlying assumptions about the role that Indonesia should play in the region. Soekarno and Soeharto espoused the same notion of regional and global influence but sought their goals in different ways. Indonesia's policy-makers maintain a belief that it should play a wider regional, and ultimately global, role. However, Soeharto's "New Order" made some important changes to foreign policy outcomes. Broadly speaking, Soeharto established three spheres of influence. The first was the West, primarily for trade, investment and assistance links. Soeharto's initial concern was to improve Indonesia's economic prospects; aid, trade and investment from the developed world was the only way to achieve this. The second sphere of influence was within the developing world, primarily within the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). …

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