Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 16:21 | SYDNEY
Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 16:21 | SYDNEY

Indonesia as ASEAN Chair: A test of democracy

29 June 2010 15:05

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

If you want to know the substance of Indonesia's contemporary foreign policy, mark your calender for 2011, when Jakarta takes over from Vietnam as Chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Indonesia wants to make its mark on ASEAN in 2011 as a leading member state, with an increased emphasis on human rights and the protection of migrant workers, foreshadowed Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa. Natalegawa also stated his intention to 'fill the vacuum of leadership in ASEAN', created in part by Vietnam's chairing of the organisation and human rights concerns associated with Thailand and the Philippines.

ASEAN remains the 'cornerstone' and first concentric circle of Indonesia's foreign policy, despite frustration in Jakarta over ASEAN's inability to defuse bilateral issues such as the Ambalat maritime territorial dispute, and talk (in Jakarta's non-government circles, at least) of the need for a 'post-ASEAN' foreign policy.

Concurrent with democratisation over the last decade, Jakarta has seemed increasingly willing to buck ASEAN's traditional sovereignty-based norms, to the discomfort of 'less-democratic' ASEAN member states. Aided by a stronger civil society, an unbridled legislature and the prominent role of strategic think tanks such as CSIS Jakarta, Indonesia has increasingly sought to translate its internal reform experience into a strategic democratisation agenda for ASEAN, at least in a declaratory sense.

Next year will, therefore, represent an interesting year both from the perspective of what Jurgen Ruland calls 'Indonesia's self-styled normative power' – its leading role in promoting liberal democratic norms within ASEAN — and from the perspective of ASEAN cohesion more generally, in the organisation's willingness to adopt reforms that challenge its core principle of non-interference.

Key issues to watch under Jakarta's leadership include the evolution of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission of Human Rights, ASEAN's response to elections in Myanmar, and how Jakarta reconciles its ongoing bilateral tensions with Singapore and Kuala Lumpur over the ill-treatment of Indonesian migrant workers with success in achieving an ASEAN-agreed legal mechanism for their protection.

Also worth monitoring over 2011 is the paradox between Jakarta's emphasis on democracy, human rights and good governance in its regional foreign policy, and increasingly 'illiberal' developments domestically. For example, will the resignation of former Finance Minister Sri Mulyani, political machinations surrounding wealthy businessman Aburizal Bakrie and Indonesia's apparent backsliding on religious pluralism begin to undermine Jakarta's external democratic credentials and, as a result, capacity to affect normative change in ASEAN? Wait and watch in 2011.