As 2011 comes to a close, Cambodian diplomats are hunkered down in Jakarta, completing the final steps in the transition from Indonesia to Cambodia as ASEAN Chair. Hence this is an appropriate time to assess how Indonesia fared as ASEAN Chair.
The starting point for this analysis is a counterfactual premise – Brunei was originally scheduled to be ASEAN Chair in 2011, but switched places with Indonesia, which was supposed to be chair in 2013. Indonesia wanted to switch because of other summit meetings such as the G-20 and, more importantly, its elections due in 2014 (after the switch and the Bali summit, the new order is Cambodia-2012, Brunei-2013, Myanmar-2014 and Laos-2015). Hence did Indonesia perform better as ASEAN Chair than Brunei would have?
The clear answer is yes.
Having the largest member, a founding member, serve as ASEAN Chair had a significant impact on developments in 2011:
Preah Vihear – the border temple dispute almost resulted in Cambodia and Thailand engaging in armed conflict. A turn in domestic Thai politics (e.g., the election victory of Yingluck Shinawatra) defused the dispute (for now). However, the active intervention of Indonesia as ASEAN Chair (invoking the dispute resolution clauses of the ASEAN Charter) helped calm the situation. Acceptance of the ASEAN Chair’s role in the dispute was crucial, particularly since the other ASEAN institution that could have become involved, the ASEAN Secretary General, is currently a Thai national whose role would have been questioned by Cambodia. With the presence of Indonesian observers, the dispute has receded. Brunei would have had moral weight, but clearly the heavier diplomatic presence of Indonesia made a difference in this dispute.
Myanmar – the continued political and economic reforms in Myanmar were aggressively supported by Indonesia as ASEAN Chair. A former military-backed dictatorship which successfully transitioned to a democracy, Indonesia serves as a useful role model for Myanmar. Indonesia also actively worked to convince the United States and the West that the reforms are real. This should not be underestimated. If Brunei had been ASEAN Chair, there would have been a real temptation for President Obama to skip an East Asia Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, given his domestic political problems. Yet President Obama had emotional ties to Indonesia, plus the diplomatic burden of having cancelled previous visits to Indonesia, so he went. This helped set up Secretary Clinton’s December visit to Myanmar and the potential lifting of economic sanctions.
Timor Leste – Indonesia failed to get Timor Leste admitted into ASEAN in 2011. As I have written before, the burden of bringing in Timor Leste into the ASEAN Economic Community would have been another unnecessary distraction, especially with the other issues of Myanmar and Preah Vihear. However, the fact the ASEAN membership of Timor Leste is now viewed as a likelihood can be attributed to Indonesia. That Indonesia, the former occupying power in Timor Leste, is now its biggest supporter, is another irony of history. If Brunei had been chair in 2011, Timor Leste’s cause would have been further delayed.
I think on other issues, such as the South China Sea/Spratly and Paracel Islands or even the ASEAN Economic Community, Indonesia probably did as well as Brunei would have done.
All of this is not to say that Brunei would have done worse as a hypothetical ASEAN Chair in 2011. Rather, it is that countries and their leaders meet the challenges that are presented by history, and in 2011, Indonesia met those challenges well as ASEAN Chair.
It also does not mean that small countries will necessary have less influence over events. Small members are even more dependent on regional integration than large countries, and countries like Cambodia and Laos more than make up for their lack of economic and political clout with an abundance of enthusiasm. Furthermore, they and Vietnam are strong supporters of globalization, given their relatively late start in joining the international economic community.
Hence 2012 will present its own set of challenges to Cambodia as ASEAN Chair. It will need to move closer to a definitive resolution of Preah Vihear. It will need to work with Vietnam in selecting a new ASEAN Secretary General. It will need to monitor developments in Myanmar. It will need to push forward on the AEC agenda. On these points, I think Cambodia understands what must be done. If the potential distractions of Preah Vihear can be avoided, I am confident that Cambodia can follow up on Indonesia’s successful term as ASEAN Chair.