The 32nd ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC) Meeting and the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' retreat, held on February 3-4, 2023, marks the first significant event held by Indonesia during the country's 2023 ASEAN Chairmanship. The two meetings were convened by the Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi at the ASEAN Building in Jakarta, having been attended by all ASEAN members states, except Myanmar. A historical first, the two meetings witnessed the participation of Timor-Leste as a member of the ASEAN family, yet with the legal status of observer and very soon as a full member.
Regrettably, the two ASEAN meetings in February were held under less festive auspices: Myanmar, one of ASEAN’s ten members, continues to be rife with violence.
In fact, the Asia-Pacific region and the whole world are strictly observing the developments in Myanmar and the response of ASEAN aiming the return to normality. Unfortunately, from Myanmar there are coming no positive and promising signs for a solution or the readiness of the army to retreat. On the contrary, the junta in Naypydaw has recently announced an extension of the emergency rule. In the mirror, the Southeast association faces tough questions, since the lack of progress on the commonly-agreed, yet little implemented, Five-Point Consensus seems to have become apparent and frustration amid ASEAN leaders has been pushed to limits.
ASEAN is still hesitant to apply the principle of consensus according to the organization’s Charter to reach restoration of democracy in one of its members. It is now well understood that the lack of consensus is a reality and a drastic concern. A thorough analysis of the official statements, political comments and, the official documents before and, particularly, during the two very important events underlined above disclose this serious concern in both ways, namely: the suffering of the Myanmar people and the damage to the unity and the important regional and international role of ASEAN. Under all these circumstances, President Joko Widodo had to reiterate as a stimulus his belief that ASEAN is "still important and relevant for the people, for the region and for the world" and that "it will continue to contribute to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific”.
In case this status-quo will finally take the form of normality, ASEAN will suffer a serious setback as far as its image, and not only, is concerned. However it is also still possible to arrive at a favorable outcome by continuing and intensifying the current approach of ASEAN to the Myanmar question, and then the consensus will prove its viability. Even so, the consensus principle seems to have negative impact on the developments in many parts of the world, including at the level of the United Nations. A more innovative formula has to be discovered!
Indonesia has a great responsibility as Chair of ASEAN and the diplomatic way of moving ahead is absolutely necessary. It is worthy to mention in this context that the President Widodo, according to local media, has suggested sending an Indonesian general to Naypyidaw, recalling that his country has similarly embarked on a democratic path after a military dictatorship, stressing his strong belief that the intervention of a figure who comes from the armed forces could help facilitate a relaxation of the complex problem in Myanmar.
There are no doubts that the Myanmar case was on the top of the official agenda and the unofficial discussions of the two meetings of ASEAN.The head of the Indonesian diplomacy, Minister Retno Marsudi, has been reported saying in a news conference that "The meeting is dedicated to discuss the Myanmar issue in an open, in-depth, and frank manner as one family”. As a host and Chair of ASEAN, most probably Indonesia has vowed not to be "held hostage" by the Myanmar issue. No wonder why the topic is presented, in a very concentrated and almost similarly warded as the previous form, at the last part of the Chair”s Statement. The developments in the near future will judge the effects. According to Indonesian Foreign Ministry official Sidharto R. Suryodipuro: "As to other meetings, it will be an ongoing consultation, but the principle is that at the moment, no side has the legitimacy to sit in the Myanmar chair”.
It could be a huge mistake to consider that the lack of the consensus on Myanmar and the little progress reached on this occasion on this matter reduce the results of the 32nd ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC) Meeting and the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' retreat.
Indonesia's ASEAN Chairmanship, guided by the motto "ASEAN Matters: the Epicenter of Growth", intends to further strengthen the ASEAN Community by closer cooperation in order to respond to regional and global challenges such as geopolitical competition, the impact of pandemics and natural disasters, financial, energy and food crises. Indonesia similarly intends to promote stability and peace in the Indo-Pacific region through dialogue and collaboration, in line with the vision adopted by the Association in 2019.
In this way of thinking, the two meetings showed that 2023 will witness a vivid concentration on the internal progress of ASEAN as the most powerful regional organization as well as on maintaining and consolidating its Centrality according to the new concept of the ASEAN as Epicenter of the Growth – the absolutely indispensable away of the association in its relationship with the major powers and regional and world developments.
Paragraph 30 of the Press Statement released at the conclusion of the two ASEAN meetings recalls "the importance of taking concrete steps to realize the goals of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) that strengthen a rules-based framework, transparency, inclusivity, and non-intervention as well as complementarities with existing cooperation frameworks and guide ASEAN's engagement with its partners in ASEAN-led mechanisms". To this extent, ASEAN will hold an "ASEAN-Indo-Pacific Forum" in 2023 and acknowledged the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) as "the premier political and economic policy organization in the Pacific region".
An equal attention has been paid to the developments in the South China Sea(par. 46), cross-strait developments - an euphemistic terms encompassing the tensions between mainland China and the island of Taiwan (par. 48) and the on-going developments in the Korean Peninsula, particularly the "recent surge in DPRK's intercontinental ballistic missile testing and ballistic missile launches" (par. 49)
To this avail, substantive South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) negotiations continued to be "looked forward to", as the first round of COC physical textual negotiations held under the Indonesian Chairmanship are expected in March 2023. One should, however, note that ASEAN's continuous appeals to the norms of international law and the 1982 United Nations Conventions for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) have brought little progress in the negotiations with Beijing. In this regard, it remains difficult to anticipate future developments of the situation, ASEAN itself having acknowledged the potential to "further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea".
Similar concerns that could lead to "miscalculation, serious confrontation, open conflicts, and unpredictable consequences" have been raised in relation to mainland China - Taiwan island relations; ASEAN's stance to "play a constructive role in facilitating peaceful dialogue between all parties" is truly commendable, particularly against the backdrop of the increased US-China tensions, never mentioned in the Statement, yet certainly acknowledged by all the participants.
As stressed earlier, ASEAN's availability to step up and support peaceful dialogue in the Indo-Pacific has also been displayed in relation to the Korean Peninsula, "including the creation of a conducive environment for peaceful dialogue among all concerned parties, (...) our readiness to play a constructive role by utilizing ASEAN-led platforms such as the ARF in promoting a conducive atmosphere to peaceful dialogue".
It could be inferred that the current ASEAN approach, as visible in the first major ASEAN event held under the Indonesian Chairmanship, signals a significant step up of ASEAN’s role not only in the region, but globally as well. In fact, the word “regional” continues to be used extensively in the ASEAN press statement (19 times), while the word “global” has been used 4 times – stressing an increasingly wider stance and scope on the role ASEAN is ready to play. The very motto chosen by Indonesia under its Chairmanship, i.e. “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth”, suggests the increasingly important role assumed by the association as well as its focus on development, in other words the willingness to remain well-balanced and out of any confrontational rhetoric. Obviously, after the two meetings in February of this year, ASEAN remained an open and free partner which has no reason not to be approached or to become involved in any regional and global matters.
In 2023, it is up to the Indonesian Chairmanship to carry on as “ASEAN’s driving force” and showcase the regional association continuous to remain robust at its core, central in the region and globally active.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.