Asean would benefit from stronger leadership. But Indonesia, best placed to take up that role, appears unwilling despite the fact that it could be the leader that Asean needs. However, it intentionally refrains from asserting its influence over the association.
This is due to Indonesia’s internal weaknesses, Asean’s norms of non-interference and equality among members, and the remaining antagonism among Asean member countries. While President Joko Widodo has shown an increasing willingness to play on the international stage with statements urging the country to become a maritime power, the situation leaves a power vacuum within the association and intensifies the academic debate about leadership in integrating regions.
There are three possible and intertwining explanations of leadership in Asean.
Sectoral leadership refers to leadership exercised through areas or sectors of competence, or depending on which country is in a better position to take the lead at the time. Indonesia’s foreign-policy orientation is frequently concerned with political and security issues. For example, it greatly influenced Asean positions on the Cambodian conflict and the South China Sea dispute. Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore like to push economic issues. These countries played a vital role in moving onto the path of economic integration. All were notable proponents of the Asean Free Trade Area. The Philippines is often more concerned with social and cultural issues, demonstrated by its initiation of Asean Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC).
Cooperative leadership is formed among a group of countries that share a common vision and wish to play a strategic role in the region. This is based on the notion that no single Asean country can fulfil the leading role, so it should be built on the basis of two or three countries that are able to forge solid cooperation among their leaders and consolidate their domestic politics. This form of leadership is perhaps similar to the case of the European Union where Germany and France appear as a coalition leader.
Periodical leadership assumes that leadership is attached to individuality or charisma. This notion is heavily centered on some notable leaders of Asean, such as Indonesia’s President Suharto, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad.
The sectorial explanation of leadership may be prevalent because Indonesia still lacks competence, for example in socio-economic areas. The cooperative model may have emerged because Asean is actually a collection of weak and vulnerable countries domestically. The periodical leadership is also visible because Asean is arguably an elitist organization and very much attached to leader’s charisma. But, without a doubt, Asean requires the presence of undisputed leadership for which Indonesia seems to be the only candidate.
Asean requires a clear and dominant leader that can serve as an institutional focal point and regional paymaster to facilitate and drive regional projects. Most multi-lateral or regional organisations include a country with more power relative to its other members. In every international bargain with competing national interests, there is an influence of structural powers (derived from material and resource capacity such as the size of land, population and economy).
Even the European Union, which has much more solid and effective institutions to drive decision-making, is heavily influenced by French and German leadership. Regional integration is a scene of competing national interests and the position of leadership is normally taken by the governments of large, prosperous and powerful member states.
As the world’s fourth largest state in terms of population and the region’s largest country, which comprises about 40 percent of Asean’s total population, Indonesia is the elephant in the room. Indonesia initiated and proposed the foundation of Asean as a means to end regional conflict. As a consequence of a painful experience of colonization, it was the country that continued to stress non-alignment, with the hope of removing the exercise of external powers from the region. While the coercive action towards East Timor and the severe financial crisis in the late 1990s spelled the decline of Indonesia’s position in Asean, its recent democratic consolidation is bolstering its reputation in regional affairs.
The invisibility of leadership in Asean is a result of Indonesia trying to ensure regional unity. Without the low-posture politics of Indonesia, the association would not be able to create multilateralism and a neutral context in which smaller states could feel more comfortable when dealing with bigger countries. But, considering the remaining antagonism among members and its considerable institutional weaknesses, this raises the importance of leadership in Asean.
Asean’s future cannot rely wholly upon Indonesia’s structural leadership. It has to be invested with some sort of soft power that could help amplify international images and credibility, as well as tone down antagonism and resistance within the organisation. Indonesia should seek to play a more active leading role and exercise more of its power over the association.
In the foreseeable future, Asean will continue to be shaped by the politics of Indonesia. The recent political developments in Indonesia will provide a vital ingredient in building up confidence and credibility, as well as enhancing the pursuit of leadership in Asean.
Pattharapong Rattanasevee is a lecturer at Burapha University, Chonburi, Thailand.This originally appeared on the East Asia Forum, a platform for analysis and research at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.