Last week I was in my law firm’s Brussels office and teaching at the College of Europe with one of my law partners. Being in the “EU capital,” I was interested to see this article querying whether Jakarta could continue to serve as the “ASEAN capital” due to its infrastructure problems. Also, I am occasionally asked why the ASEAN institutions are based in Jakarta instead of a more convenient or more developed location.
The ASEAN Secretariat (and therefore the ASEAN Secretary General) have been located in Jakarta since their establishment. Article 11 of the ASEAN Charter, which formalizes the Secretariat’s role, does not stipulate its location. However, Article 12 of the Charter states that the member states’ permanent representatives to ASEAN are based in Jakarta, which imply that the Secretariat should be based in Jakarta.
Would the ASEAN Secretariat be better situated elsewhere? Of course, Singapore is more centrally located in the region with better infrastructure, albeit with higher operating costs. Kuala Lumpur has similar advantages (there is no better microcosm of the ASEAN public than the Air Asia hub at KLIA) with cheaper costs. The politics of relocating the Secretariat aside, both cities could claim to be “better” locations.
Yet even in the more integrated EU, the major institutions are not conveniently located. The European Commission and European Parliament (as well as NATO headquarters) are located in Brussels, which is well connected regionally but not globally (there are few flights from Asia, for example). Brussels is also as far away by air from the newer EU members in Eastern Europe as Jakarta is from Hanoi or Manila. Hence convenience may be overrated as a consideration.
Also, the politics of location do matter. The EU example also illustrates what happens when intra-member political considerations factor into institution-building. The European Parliament meets in Brussels and Strasbourg and maintains its secretariat in Luxembourg. The European Court of Justice is in Luxembourg, and the European Central Bank is in Frankfurt. ASEAN has been fortunate to avoid these geographic compromises.
It is probably well and good that the ASEAN institutions see the real-life problems of Jakarta residents on a daily basis, which are similarly faced by almost every other ASEAN member. It is just as important that the ASEAN institutions be located in the country with the plurality of population and area in ASEAN. The more important question for ASEAN is whether the members are willing to contribute more funds and human resources to the ASEAN institutions. That requires a long-overdue revision to the funding formula of ASEAN, rather than continued equal contributions by each member state. Just as Jakarta authorities need to face the challenges of administering their ever-growing city, ASEAN leaders need to face the challenges of developing their regional institutions.