Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 16:59 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 16:59 | SYDNEY

Beijing divide and rule strategy exposes Jakarta

18 April 2012 13:43

Greta Nabbs-Keller is writing a PhD at Griffith Asia Institute on the impact of democratisation on Indonesia’s foreign policy.

Indonesia's aspirational slogan, 'ASEAN Community in a Global Community of Nations', posted all over Jakarta in 2011, has been undermined by recent events in Cambodia. Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Phnom Penh just days before the ASEAN Summit, which was due to decide on how to proceed with drafting the South China Sea Code of Conduct. ASEAN subsequently split over whether China should be included from the beginning of the drafting process. No prizes for guessing which side Cambodia was on.

Beijing's non too subtle exercise of political leverage over Phnom Penh recently with regard to the Code of Conduct has exposed divisions within ASEAN and frustrations among Jakarta's foreign policy elite. But more seriously for Jakarta, machinations behind the April ASEAN Summit meeting illustrate the risks of a foreign policy predicated upon the cohesion and ongoing integration of ASEAN as a bulwark against major powers.

Despite earlier frustrations with ASEAN in post-Suharto Indonesia, successive Indonesian governments have affirmed their commitment to ASEAN and its pivotal importance in Indonesia's foreign policy. ASEAN remains the cornerstone (sogok guru) of Indonesia's foreign policy. But increasingly, ASEAN's preference for consensus decision-making renders it hostage to the lowest common denominator (in this case, Cambodia), damaging its credibility and leaving it exposed to manipulation by external powers.

ASEAN's inability to achieve unanimity over the protracted and highly volatile South China Sea dispute has broader implications for Southeast Asia, for it undermines the whole raison d'être of the contemporary ASEAN project – the achievement of an integrated political-security, economic, and socio-cultural community in Southeast Asia by 2015.

Divisions within ASEAN undermine its centrality in the evolution of East Asia's regional politico-security order, the preservation of which has been an integral part of ASEAN's response to the rise of China and India, and the attendant major power rivalries.

Jakarta's earlier soul searching over the relevance of ASEAN to its foreign policy may be reignited in the aftermath of developments in Phnom Penh. Clearly, Indonesia cannot dispense with ASEAN, as many of its foreign policy priorities – promotion of democracy and human rights, protection of migrant workers and enhancing its border security — depend on the support of neighbouring Southeast Asian states and the multilateral framework provided by ASEAN.

Indonesia cannot, therefore, realistically achieve a 'post-ASEAN' foreign policy. But how it reconciles the inherent weakness of ASEAN with its emerging power status and desire to preserve Southeast Asia's autonomy in the face of growing major power influence is presenting itself as a 'wicked' policy dilemma for Jakarta.