Indonesia: Southeast Asia’s Natural Leader?

For the first time in the 45-year history of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, at the summit held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a joint statement was not issued. At the heart of this were the South China Sea disputes, particularly the Scarborough Shoal conflict between the Philippines and China. The Philippines and Vietnam (also in dispute with China) pushed to have the Scarborough Shoal dispute included in the communiqué, but was rejected by China-allied Cambodia.

Since 2012, the disputes continue, a peaceful resolution elusive. If ever there was a time for a leader to step forward, now would be it; and who better to shoulder this responsibility than Indonesia, a founding member of Asean. It is the most populous of Asean member states and is considered one of the six major economies. Although GDP growth in the country dipped below 6 percent for the first time since 2009, recording growth of 5.78 percent in 2013, there is reason for optimism with the Indonesian rupiah slowly stabilizing.

Economics, however, is not the only measure of one’s potential as a leader. Indonesia is already the de facto leader of the 10-member treaty organization, but as the forum begins to stress under the weight of the South China Sea disputes, Jakarta should look beyond it as a means to express its leadership in Southeast Asia. Its strength lies not in the size of its economy but its potential as a consensus builder.

Yet, Indonesian leadership is not immediately self-evident. Asia-Pacific does not suffer from a shortage of leaders. However, due to circumstances, these countries may not provide the best fit for guiding Southeast Asia through the South China Sea disputes.

For obvious reasons, the United States should not be tasked with unifying Southeast Asia, if only because Washington may not possess the necessary presence and understanding of the region for long-term success. Additionally, its relationship with China is too complex to take into account the needs of Southeast Asian nations.

Countries involved in the South China Sea disputes are also unlikely to provide much leadership in resolving them. The Philippines has burned too many bridges with China, with cooler heads having long since been cast aside for direct confrontation. Vietnam, on the other hand, must walk a fine line between asserting its independence while maintaining a positive, or at least cordial, relationship with its neighbor to the north. Consequently, Vietnam may not be able to juggle between the responsibilities of managing relations with China and uniting Southeast Asia.

And what about other major regional countries?

Japan and Singapore are far too removed from the South China Sea disputes, and are not suitable candidates. Moreover, Japan is already squaring off against China over the latter’s implementation of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, which encompasses the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands; and Singapore is far too small to effect serious change. Australia is equally disqualified due to its distance and alignment with Western powers. As for South Korea, it will unlikely be distracted by foreign disputes far away from its shores while North Korea remains a subject of concern. Regardless, in both cases, and including Japan and Singapore, they are not considered part of Southeast Asia.

For its part, Indonesia has refrained from diving head first into the South China Sea disputes. Its relative distance from the disputes may therefore aid in its attempt to unify Southeast Asia.

The first test and bold solutions

Although not a claimant state in the contentious Spratly Islands chapter of the South China Sea disputes, which involve several Southeast Asian countries including China, vying for ownership over the archipelago, Indonesia must nevertheless contend with an increasingly assertive China.

It is on this issue where Indonesia’s ability to act as a consensus builder would be put to the test, for it too has an interest in limiting China’s grip on the South China Sea. With a very real possibility that China would implement an ADIZ over the sea, Indonesia would find itself drawn into the disputes whether it wants to or not. Rather than wait until the last minute when it will be forced to choose sides, Indonesia’s leaders in Jakarta should get ahead of the curve and offer bold ideas, if not permanent solutions than a roadmap towards one.

With progress in the Spratlys dispute stifled due largely to overlapping claims, perhaps what is required is a moratorium on the issue of sovereignty. It is not surprising that claimant states are unwilling to step away from the area, given the rich fishing grounds and abundance of natural resources around and beneath the archipelago. Yet, the pursuit of these claims, and should they lead to conflict, may prove detrimental to the long-term peace and prosperity of Southeast Asia.

A moratorium on the issue of sovereignty in exchange for a joint-development plan on natural resources would instead, hopefully, allow for all parties to share in the riches of the Spratlys. Of course, some basic questions including the structure of this multinational organization and how resources are divided among member states must first be answered.

Nevertheless, there is an opportunity for some measure of stability. With no claim in the Spratlys, Indonesia is well positioned to offer objective leadership. Should such an initiative succeed, Indonesia’s legitimacy as a unifier in Southeast Asia would be cemented. Ultimately, however, leadership is not given but earned, and it begins with a choice. Supporters may look to Indonesia for guidance, but only Indonesia can accept such responsibility. It is for the nation’s to decide what role Indonesia will play in the future.

Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. Duvien Tran is a special research associate at VDK Law Office in Ottawa focusing on foreign policy, strategic planning, and South China Sea security issues.