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Does ASEAN Matter?

Launch of Marty Natalegawa, Does ASEAN Matter? A View from Within (ISEAS, 2018), Australian National University, Canberra, 1 November 2018

Marty Natalegawa is as good an Indonesian friend as Australia has ever had, and certainly as good a friend as we at ANU, his alma mater, have ever had. What he learned about the idiosyncrasies of our national character, and how to respond to them, when doing his PhD here in the early 1990s, I guess helps explain why he remains one of the most affectionately regarded, as well as respected, Asian foreign ministers in our history. He has forged many strong personal relationships here across the political spectrum, and in the academic and business communities, and I am delighted to have the honour and privilege of welcoming him back to ANU for the Australian launch of his important new book, Does ASEAN Matter? A View from Within.

Pak Marty is best known to both Australians and the wider world for his role as an extraordinarily effective and creative Foreign Minister under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, from 2009 to 2014. But the experience which informs this book goes wider and deeper than just that, going back some thirty years. Before becoming Foreign Minister, he had a highly distinguished diplomatic career, serving as Indonesia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, President of the UN Security Council, Indonesia’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson and Director-General for ASEAN Cooperation. Pak Marty was influential two decades ago in securing acceptance of the South East Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (the subject of his ANU PhD thesis); he was influential in positioning Indonesia as the major power of our region; and as Foreign Minister, he oversaw Indonesia’s emergence as a regional power with global responsibilities.

In particular in 2011, under Indonesia’s Chairmanship of ASEAN, and with Marty playing the driving role, Indonesia initiated the Bali Concord III (aimed at ASEAN forging more coordinated and cohesive positions on global issues); and oversaw the expansion of the East Asia Summit (EAS) to include the Russian Federation and the United States of America, as well as the adoption of the ‘EAS Bali Principles’ which provide for peaceful settlement of disputes and the repudiation of use of force or the threat of use of force amongst its member countries. As Foreign Minister, Marty also actively promoted the management and resolution of a number of potentially quite neuralgic disputes and disagreements in the region, and at the global level was instrumental in securing Indonesia’s long-delayed ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 2012.

Since leaving the government, Marty has kept appropriately busy with a variety of UN advisory roles, with NGO Board positions (including keeping my old team up to the mark at the International Crisis Group), and working with the Bank of Indonesia to research the impact of geopolitical and geo-economic shifts on Indonesia’s economy. And now he has completed this major, informative and thought-provoking book on ASEAN – which is really three books in one.

It is, first of all, a history of ASEAN’s evolution over the last fifty years. Marty is properly laudatory of its achievements, above all in transforming a region of extraordinary cultural, linguistic and religious diversity, with a very long history of discord and deadly conflict, into a genuine community where, as has been the case with the European Union, not only is war between any of its member states effectively now unthinkable, but what might once have been very drawn out and acrimonious non-lethal disputes are now for the most part resolved without any tears at all.

The book is, second, an often meticulously detailed personal memoir of life – a life manifestly not meant to be easy – at the ASEAN coalface, in particular Marty’s central role in forging agreement on difficult issues like the Preah Vihar temple dispute between Thailand and Cambodia in 2011; the ASEAN response to Myanmar’s painfully protracted transition from military to more democratic rule; recovering something from the wreckage of the failure to reach any agreement at all on the South China Sea at the Foreign Minister’s meeting in 2012; and in edging his often reluctant colleagues toward accepting more responsibility, at least in principle, on human rights issues, with the creation of the Intergovernmental Commission (AICHR) in 2009 and adoption of the Human Rights Declaration in 2012.

While he only occasionally explicitly acknowledges the ‘almost infinite reservoir of patience’ needed to navigate his way through these issues, the reader feels his pain: certainly this one did. Even at the best of times ASEAN diplomacy tends to be a grindingly slow and painstaking business: frustration comes with the territory. But there also comes through very nicely – both in Marty’s text and in the many evocative photos that accompany and enrich it – that sense of camaraderie and community, and personal warmth, which has underpinned for decades the basic ASEAN success story. Even as an outsider, I certainly experienced that, and have often said that as Australia’s foreign minister from 1988-96 I had no counterparts anywhere in the world with whom I felt closer and more comfortable than my ASEAN colleagues, despite the multitude of cultural and historical factors notionally dividing us.

The third book-within-the-book is what will undoubtedly attract most attention and debate. Here Marty moves from being historian and memoirist to analyst of ASEAN’s likely future. And what comes through loud and clear here, for all the caution with which he generally expresses himself, is very real concern. For all his pride about what has been achieved in the past, and for all his inherent optimism about what could be achieved with the right mindset and application in the years ahead, he is clearly genuinely anxious as to whether ASEAN can in fact meet the multiple challenges which are now accumulating – economic, social and geopolitical, and both internal and external – and maintain its future relevance, let alone its centrality.

It is hard for any objective observer of ASEAN today not to share that concern. It is evident from Marty’s analysis, although he doesn’t list them in precisely this way, that there are at least six distinct challenge benchmarks against each of which we can judge whether ASEAN really does matter, or is likely to matter in the future. And, in his own judgement as well as mine, there are currently question marks against too many of them – not all of them but too many – for anyone to be comfortable.

The first benchmark, and I think the one most likely to be satisfied, is that ASEAN continues to be, like the EU, one of the world’s great internal conflict prevention success stories, and that its member states do not lapse back into bad old confrontational habits over issues of sea and land borders and the like. I think Marty is right in believing that ASEAN as an organization has fundamentally changed the culture of the region in this respect, and that there is no real prospect of this happening for the foreseeable future.

The second benchmark is ASEAN’s contribution to the rapid, continuing and dramatic – albeit not uniform – development of South East Asia’s economies. Here again it is reasonable to accept that the organization itself has added and will continue to add value, not only in transforming the background political environment from turbulence to trust, but with its multiple internal economic cooperation programs, and its role in galvanising explicit support from a number of Dialogue Partners. But there are plenty of challenges ahead: maintaining economic momentum, including job creation, will not be easy in an environment where there are not only mounting new external geopolitical stresses and uncertainties with the US-China contest, but a backlash everywhere against globalisation and a fear, thoroughly justified, of the unskilled and less-skilled being left completely behind by digitalisation.

The third benchmark is whether ASEAN has been, or can continue to be, an effective institutional vehicle for addressing cross-boundary regional problems, important if it is to fully realise its potential, as Marty puts it, as a people-centric rather than state-centric association. Here he makes clear there has been a considerable gap between aspiration and actual performance, with ASEAN institutions and processes making minimal contributions in practice, despite having ample cooperative frameworks in place, to resolving perennial problems like trans-boundary haze pollution, fisheries management, and unregulated people movements.

The fourth benchmark challenge is living up to the standards of democratic and human rights governance to which ASEAN (very largely as a result of Marty’s own efforts, as I have already noted) is formally committed. Here Marty’s disappointment is palpable, and understandably so. It has always been something of a tightrope act balancing ASEAN’s traditional, and understandable, desire to continue to give primacy to state sovereignty and non-interference against the need to address unacceptable violations of universally recognised civil and political rights, and a number of its member states have always had authoritarian governing structures. But as Marty frankly acknowledges, ASEAN cannot be blind to the extent to which in recent times internal developments in so many states have really been putting at risk the ASEAN brand. There really has been an evident deterioration in the quality of member state commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia and elsewhere, and above all in the shocking treatment by Myanmar of its Muslim Rohingya people, where ASEAN’s impotence has been most apparent. All these violations seriously limit any soft power ASEAN may otherwise be able to exercise, and negatively impact on the last benchmark (to which I will come in a moment): ASEAN’s claim to continued ‘centrality’ in the operation of those regional organisations which are so crucial to the whole region’s future.

The fifth benchmark is whether ASEAN is capable of providing any kind of effective collective response to external security challenges. It has found it extraordinarily difficult to maintain cohesion in the face of a newly confident and assertive China which has been (and these are my words, not Marty’s) only too happy to create, or re-create – if it can do so without violent conflict – some kind of hegemonic, tributary relationship with its southern neighbours. In particular, with at least two of ASEAN’s members, Cambodia and Laos, now being effectively wholly owned subsidiaries of Beijing (my words, again), it has proved impossible to reach consensus on any kind of sustained, substantive, collective reaction on the South China Sea issue. As Foreign Minister, Marty has played in the past – as I have already noted – an important role in patching over some of these cracks, and he now expresses a degree of optimism that something might finally be happening to give substance to the long-sought goal of negotiating a substantial, binding Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. But as much as I would like to share that optimism, it is difficult in the present environment. If there is to be push back against some of the more unacceptable dimensions of Chinese assertiveness, it’s not likely to come from ASEAN collectively: its two most powerful players – Indonesia and Vietnam – are going to have to play a more active and assertive role.

The final benchmark challenge is whether ASEAN can continue to credibly maintain its claim to ‘centrality’ in the continuing evolution of Asia-Pacific, and now Indo-Pacific, economic and security architecture. It can reasonably claim that role in relation to the current development of RCEP (the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), initiated by Indonesia in 2011, which has been seen as an attractive partial alternative to the originally US-driven TPP. And it is true that APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and now the East Asian Summit (EAS) have all been built up around a core of ASEAN members, utilising ASEAN + dialogue processes to get them started. ASEAN has played an acknowledged ‘strategic convenor’ role. But it is not clear that in recent years it has been contributing much, if anything at all, to initiating or implementing substantive agendas in any of these bodies. As Marty puts it, quite starkly, ‘ASEAN cannot rest on its laurels…it must instead actively earn its centrality and leadership in the region’s architecture building. Should ASEAN stand still, then at best its claimed centrality will increasingly ring hollow and ASEAN will be rendered redundant; or worse, it will be swept aside by dynamics beyond its control’.

The bottom line in all of this for Marty, and I agree with him, is not whether ASEAN will survive – which it must, in all our interests, and surely will– but whether it will fully realise its potential. He makes clear in his final chapter the essential prerequisites, with which I think it’s impossible to disagree: maintaining unity and cohesion, not just formally but substantively; maintaining genuinely cooperative leadership; creating, or re-creating, an ambitious, transformative outlook, not just drifting along reacting to rather than trying to shape events; and further enhancing its people-centric, rather than excessively state sovereignty-focused outlook.

It is not only in South East Asia’s interests, but very much in Australia’s national interests, that ASEAN does fully realise its potential, and prospers rather than withers. Whatever the degree of difficulty involved in making it happen in this rather fragile and uncertain environment, this is a very opportune time, on both sides, for Australia-ASEAN relations to intensify. While it is manifestly premature to be even thinking about our formal membership of the organization – and Marty’s book does not address this issue at all – given the particular uncertainties now evident about the future course of behaviour of both the United States and China, it has never been more important that all the other countries of the region work together to build more collective strength, both economically and politically, and in the joint pursuit of regional and global public goods.

Having a stronger identity as a strategic, economic and social policy partner with our South East Asian neighbours would certainly help Australia shrug off once and for all the lingering perception around Asia that we see one of our central roles as playing ‘deputy sheriff’ to the United States. This is the kind of stronger-partner identity that Australia was constructing with ASEAN – and especially Indonesia – during the Hawke-Keating governments, but it has visibly diminished since, and needs to be recaptured.

This is a stimulating and thoughtful book, which will give all of us – here and in the region and the wider world – a great deal to think about. It will be seen further afield – and I hope very much it will be seen in South East Asia itself – as a welcome and overdue wake-up call. It adds another whole layer of achievement to Marty Natalegawa’s already very fine record of diplomatic achievement over the last three decades. And it gives us here at ANU yet another reason to be very proud indeed of one of our most stellar alumni.

I am delighted to congratulate you, Marty, and your publishers for producing a book of such major potential influence, and to launch it on its way in Australia.