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Foreign Policy

ASEAN Neutrality: Indonesia Deftly Navigates U.S.-China Competition

Oct 20, 2023

Under Indonesia’s leadership, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conducted its first-ever joint drills without the participation of any outside powers. In the past, the regional body conducted naval exercises with China, Russia and the United States as part of broader efforts to build balanced, stable and fruitful relations with all major powers in the Indo-Pacific. 

This year, however, ASEAN’s rotational chairman, Indonesia, insisted on an all-ASEAN naval exercise in order to not only enhance interoperability among member states, but also project power and unity amid rising geopolitical tensions in the region. 

In his twilight months in office, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, affectionately known as “Jokowi”, has tried his best to not only present his country as a rising power, but also accentuate ASEAN centrality in shaping the broader security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. While painstakingly admitting ASEAN’s shortcomings, especially its inefficacy in dealing with major crises in its own backyard, Jokowi has been broadly optimistic in his regional outlook. 

With ASEAN emerging as one of the most economically dynamic regions in the world, regional leaders like Jokowi believe that time is on their side. The all-ASEAN naval drills this year, therefore, marked an unprecedented effort to demonstrate Southeast Asia’s growing power and shared purpose. The location, nature and size of the participants in the inaugural military drills, however, only underscore ASEAN’s stubborn commitment to strategic neutrality amid intensifying Sino-American rivalry in the region.  

A House Divided 

Last year, Jokowi established himself as a global statesman, thanks to his successful presidency of the Group of 20 (G20) nations.  Indonesia's leader corralled international support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, while deftly nudging Russia against disruption of global food supplies. At times, Jokowi even fancied himself as a potential ‘peacemaker, personally visiting both Kiev and Moscow at the height of the conflict. 

Most impressively, Jokowi effectively mediated Sino-American rivalry by hosting a bilateral summit between the two superpowers on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali last year. The upshot was a broadly successful meeting between Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping and the U.S. President Joseph Biden, who agreed to establishing guardrails in the world’s most important bilateral relationship. This set the tone for Indonesia’s chairmanship of the ASEAN in a particularly challenging era. 

Nevertheless, Indonesia managed to live up to expectations as it has in the past when chairing the regional body. This was particularly the case in 2011, when Jakarta played a critical role in convincing feuding member states such as Thailand and Cambodia to resolve their border disputes through international arbitration. Over the succeeding years, Indonesia was also instrumental in bridging intra-ASEAN differences over thorny issues such as the South China Sea disputes.

No wonder then, expectations were particularly high ahead of Indonesia’s assumption of ASEAN chairmanship this year. Right off the bat, Jokowi acknowledged challenges facing the regional body, declaring “ASEAN unity is needed to formulate the way forward” on seemingly intractable challenges in the region. 

In particular, ASEAN has struggled to address the festering conflict in Myanmar following the military coup against the democratically-elected government in 2021. By all indications, the Burmese junta has ignored the ASEAN-brokered ‘peace plan,’ which called for the restoration of democratic institutions and end to violent crackdown on civilians.

Key member states such as Malaysia have been calling for more decisive measures, including the full expulsion of the junta from ASEAN, with Malaysian Foreign Minister Zambry Abdul Kadir exclaiming how “we cannot allow this to continue without strong and effective measures imposed on the [Burmese] junta.” Former Indonesia foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa,  who is widely respected as a senior statesman in ASEAN, also lamented how the regional body has been “at a loss” in dealing with a catastrophic situation in a member state.

As if that weren’t enough pressure,  Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. urged ASEAN to take more decisive measures in the South China Sea. In contrast, member states such as Cambodia have resisted any involvement in the maritime disputes, while Thailand has maintained cordial ties with Myanmar’s junta. Eager to maintain a semblance of unity, Jokowi exercised leadership by insisting that disagreements over thorny issues such as the crisis in Myanmar “must not hinder the accelerated development of the ASEAN community, because this is what we have been waiting for.” 

In Search of Balance  

For Jokowi, ASEAN’s best option is to adopt a two-fold strategy. On one hand, he focused on positive developments in the region, most notably the emergence of Southeast Asia as an ‘epicenter of growth’.

If anything, ASEAN has become a major player in the global economy. To put things into perspective, Southeast Asian is now China’s top export destination, far larger than both the U.S. and Europe. 

By maintaining its growth momentum, Jokowi hopes that ASEAN states, especially relatively large core members, will inevitably enjoy growing capabilities, enhanced strategic autonomy, and greater say in international diplomacy. After all, Indonesia is now largely considered not only as a rising middle power, but also as a potential major power in the coming decades. 

This explains why the ASEAN joint statement following the September summit in Jakarta was primarily about economic integration and cooperation. Sections on sensitive geopolitical issues, most notably the South China Sea disputes, were relatively marginal and in an extremely neutral language. 

Nevertheless, ASEAN leaders welcomed  Indonesia’s at accelerating ongoing negotiations with China aimed at “the early conclusion of an effective and substantive” Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. Jakarta has promised to push for a more definitive deadline to finalize the long-running negotiations over a COC in order to de-escalate and better manage disputes in the vital waterways. 

Moreover, Indonesia has pushed for calibrated assertiveness in order to both demonstrate ASEAN’s growing prowess as well as transcend Sino-American rivalry in the region. Not only has ASEAN refused to fully align with any of the superpowers, but it’s also contemplating a more unified and collective response to rising maritime tensions in Southeast Asia. 

To this end, Indonesia organized the inaugural ‘ASEAN Solidarity Exercise in Natuna (ASEX-01 N) 2023,' the first multilateral naval exercise among Southeast Asian nations. Three things stand out with the exercises. To begin with, its location was adjusted to avoid alienating China and member states such as Cambodia. Instead of being primarily held in the so-called “North Natuna Sea,” which partly overlaps with areas claimed by China in the South China Sea, Indonesia instead divided the ASEAN drills into two parts: A harbour exercises was held in Batam, then a full maritime drill was held in the so-called “South Natuna Sea,” which doesn’t overlap with China’s claimed areas. 

Just as crucial was the omission of any live-firing serials and other forms of combat-oriented drills. Thus, the ASEAN exercises were meant to signal peaceful intentions rather than militaristic mobilization. Finally, the exercises also ended up only among a few member states, namely Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. The Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, did not partake, nor did Beijing-friendly ASEAN member states such as Cambodia. 

Nevertheless, Indonesia managed to find an optimal balance between preserving regional unity, on one hand, and projecting neutrality amid rising Sino-American competition, on the other. Time will tell if this more cautious approach is the best way forward for ASEAN in an era of great power competition. 

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