DUNCAN GRAHAM. ASEAN: Wethers, not rams.

Dec 19, 2018

Half a century ago five neighbouring nations got together with a set of fine ideals.  These included boosting economic growth, promoting peace and lifting living standards.  That was the excuse. The real purpose was to block the spread of Communism, now a spent force outside China and satellites like North Korea. So why keep the Association of Southeast Asian Nations alive? 

That’s the question posed by former Indonesian Foreign Minister Dr Marty Natalegawa’s book:  Does ASEAN Matter? A view from within (ISEAS Press, Singapore).

ASEAN has tried remakes: A decade ago the members – now expanded to ten – decided to emulate the European Common Market; that goal was kicked aside by the 2008 financial crisis.  Then it was suggested ASEAN develop a Human Rights Charter; that’s been shredded by member Myanmar’s brutal persecution of the Muslim Rohingya, forcing 700,000 into Bangladesh from their razed villages in Rakhine State. They fled what the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission has labelled genocide, and urged ASEAN to act.  A year has passed. The refugees have not returned home.  Apart from calls for a ‘durable solution’ ASEAN summits have shuffled around the mess, revealing the organization is more wether than ram.

Western critics of ASEAN get squashed by cultural racism claims, being told clumsy outsiders don’t appreciate the ‘Asian Way’ of quiet consultation and resolution by consensus. Natalegawa, Foreign Minister between 2009 and 2014, understands East and West. Educated in Britain, the US and Australia (at the ANU) he joined Foreign Affairs when just 23.  He bypassed the stairs and went straight to the lift with coveted postings to New York and London before scoring the top job under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, known as SBY.

The suave Sundanese became internationally recognizable for his trademark heavy frame glasses.  He seemed to radiate confidence and calm – at least in public. His job was to articulate Indonesian foreign policy in ways the world could understand. Under SBY this meant the glib slogan ‘a thousand friends and zero enemies’. OK for countries where politicians use Google to locate the Archipelago.  However not for those nearby where consensus has been rare, like the century-old Cambodia-Thailand border dispute.

Natalegawa impressed many, though not SBY’s successor Joko  ‘Jokowi’  Widodo. The former Governor of Jakarta, more concerned with domestic affairs, picked Netherlands Ambassador Retno Marsudi who hasn’t had the same impact.

Why did Natalegawa go?  Goodness, he’s only 55 and has much to give. Jakarta gossip claims Megawati Soekarnoputri, chair of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, the largest party in the House of Representatives, imposed her choice on Widodo. Another theory is that the untested new president felt insecure having such a cosmopolitan intellectual at the high table.

Face-to-face Natalegawa is warm, but his prose is cold, an academic trying to be a journalist. This makes an awkward read for those without acronyms in their lexicons. Occasionally he speaks his mind: ‘… It is a source of profound regret that lately ASEAN has not been able to project a united position to the outside world’.  He contrasts this to the time when members backed Myanmar’s so-called transition to democracy.

The Rohingya’s plight flared under Natalegawa’s watch. ‘In January 2013 I took special efforts to build the appropriate ‘comfort level’ among the Myanmar authorities.’  Whatever that means, it failed.

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Islamic nation and ASEAN’s Big Daddy, could be using its clout to lead condemnation of Myanmar and maintain the pressure. But here’s the sticking point:  Members agree not to interfere in their mates’ affairs. Widodo has visited the Bangladesh camps, approved aid programs and warned that the calamity could impact regional peace. Thus far, but no further. There’s no record of demanding ASEAN action or UN intervention.

Occasionally the odd academic suggests Australia should join ASEAN. Earlier this year some Fairfax papers quoted Widodo saying this would be a ‘good idea’, and deduced this meant active encouragement.

Aaron Connelly, Director of the Lowy Institute’s Southeast Asia Project, delivered a short lesson on squinting at different cultures through Western specs: ‘Reality check: Australia has not been invited to join ASEAN, and will not be invited to join ASEAN in our lifetimes. Jokowi (Widodo) was offering a ‘Javanese response’, trying to be polite.’

Natalegawa stresses ASEAN’s wins – no wars, visa-free movement of citizens, more trade and a forum where diplomats can quench misunderstandings by having their counterparts on speed dial. Maybe calm and cooperation would have prevailed anyway as the US withdrawal, after losing the Vietnam War, moved countries from belligerence to development.

Fixing the Rohingya’s plight isn’t the only catch ASEAN has dropped.  Natalegawa says he worked hard to get a common position on China’s extensions into the South China Sea. The reality is that Indonesia, like other ASEAN states, has trade ties and is heavily in debt to China for major infrastructure loans.  ASEAN’s population of 640 million is half that of China.  Size matters, but does ASEAN?

The author had a near-impossible job. Sometimes he vents frustration but overall sees more positives than negatives, though member states are such a disparate mix – authoritarian, Communist, military and feudal. Indonesia is the only true democracy in this weird gathering. Natalegawa could have used his pages to muster a powerful argument for his nation to show moral leadership.

Although he concludes with some suggestions for improving ASEAN, these are delivered in jargon, like ‘transformative outlook’ and  ‘people-centric’. Readers looking for clear policy directions from a master diplomat will be disappointed.  Historians who enjoy posed handshake snaps might be satisfied.

Now that’s out of the way, here’s the plea:  Dear Dr N: Please find a tough editor and write another book answering the important question posed in your title.  We need to know.

Duncan Graham is a freelance Australian journalist living in Indonesia.


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