As the 2023 chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Indonesia will dictate the organization’s priorities and regional agenda.
ASEAN is likely to focus on four issues: the crisis in Myanmar, sustainable growth, the incorporation of Timor-Leste, and the implementation of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.
Progress is unlikely on the South China Sea’s Code of Conduct negotiations.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a regional organization consisting of ten Southeast Asian member states. Established in 1967, it aims to promote economic and security cooperation in the region. The annual rotation of the ASEAN chairmanship sees Indonesia taking the helm in 2023. The success of Indonesia’s G20 Presidency last year has inspired optimism in its ability to bring Southeast Asia together to tackle longstanding challenges. Having adopted the theme “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth,” Indonesia will lead ASEAN in focusing on four key issues: dealing with the Myanmar crisis, addressing emerging challenges to support sustainable growth, facilitating the incorporation of Timor-Leste into ASEAN as a full member, and implementing the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). On the other hand, despite the significance and the pressing nature of tensions in the South China Sea, it is unlikely that Indonesia or ASEAN will actively engage in negotiations for a code of conduct.
Two years after the military coup in Myanmar, it is becoming clear that ASEAN has failed to make any headway on the issue. This has been noted by the foreign minister of Indonesia, who stated that “regardless of the efforts by the [previous] Chair[s] and all ASEAN Member States, there is no significant progress in the implementation of the 5PC [Five-Point Consensus] by the Myanmar military junta.” Because international actors have deferred to ASEAN to secure stability in Myanmar, the absence of any progress is a significant blow to ASEAN’s legitimacy. As the world scrutinizes the regional bloc’s next move, Indonesia faces an uphill battle in bringing together conflicting member states to agree on how to re-approach the issue.
The failure of ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus necessitates a different strategy. However, given that a realistic solution would require the consensus of all ASEAN member states, there are limited options that remain available. Indonesia has recognized the limitations of working within ASEAN’s mechanisms and has announced that it has been quietly engaging key stakeholders in Myanmar’s conflict, including the junta, ethnic minority armies, Myanmar’s shadow government and neighboring countries in more than sixty engagements in an effort to revive the peace process. While Indonesia’s “non-megaphone diplomacy” is an approach that can build trust with stakeholders and is a step towards renegotiating a viable solution between Myanmar and ASEAN, whether or not this culminates in tangible action is yet to be seen.
With the theme “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth,” Indonesia has indicated its desire to refocus ASEAN’s attention on sustainable economic growth in the region. In a statement by its Ministry of Foreign Affairs and at the 32nd ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC) Meeting, Indonesia has outlined four sectors for ASEAN to focus on—“food security, energy security, health, and financial stability”—with the purpose of establishing the region as an epicenter of sustainable economic growth. To flesh out this agenda, Indonesia is planning to host a series of flagship conventions, such as the ASEAN Conference on Strengthening Food Security Integration, and has pushed for the regional bloc to adopt several declarations, including the ASEAN Leaders’ Declaration on Developing Regional Electric Vehicle Ecosystem and ASEAN Leaders’ Declaration on One Health Initiative. This is in addition to ASEAN’s reaffirmation to the ongoing implementation of existing frameworks and roadmaps such as the ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint 2025 and the ASEAN Leaders’ Declaration on the Blue Economy. These initiatives demonstrate Indonesia’s commitment to tangible steps toward achieving goals and promoting regional cooperation.
Timor-Leste’s Admission into ASEAN
Timor-Leste is the only Southeast Asian country that is currently not an ASEAN member state. In 2011, Timor-Leste officially expressed interest in joining ASEAN by submitting a formal application for ASEAN membership. Since then, Timor Leste was granted observer status and has been working towards fulfilling the requirements for membership, such as implementing economic reforms and diversifying its economy beyond oil and gas resources.
In 2022, ASEAN had agreed in principle to admit Timor-Leste into ASEAN. This year, Indonesia has announced plans to lead the organization to finalize the roadmap for Timor-Leste’s full membership in ASEAN. The joint statement released at the end of the 42nd ASEAN Summit in May 2023, which Timor-Leste had attended for the first time as an observer, announced ASEAN’s support for the country’s efforts and their commitment to assist the nation in achieving the milestones required for full membership.
ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific
First proposed in 2019, the AOIP aims to “reinforce the ASEAN-centered regional architecture” and “give new momentum for existing ASEAN-led mechanisms”, such as the ASEAN Plus-Three framework and the East Asia Summit, to facilitate dialogue and promote cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. In the years following, Indonesia had taken the initiative to operationalize the AOIP, which produced the ASEAN Leaders’ Declaration on Mainstreaming Four Priority Areas of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) within ASEAN-led Mechanisms. The declaration outlines the primary steps ASEAN should take in the four priority areas of maritime cooperation, connectivity, Sustainable Development Goals, and economic and other possible areas of cooperation.
In multiple joint statements and press releases by ASEAN and the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Indonesia has reiterated its commitment to implementing the AOIP, stating that it “will be the spirit of Indonesia’s Chairmanship priorities.” In the closing statement of the 42nd ASEAN Summit this year, ASEAN announced plans to host the ASEAN-Indo-Pacific Forum: Implementation of AOIP later this year and to develop the concept papers for the implementation of the AOIP from a defense perspective, as well as a concept paper on the development of an ASEAN Maritime Outlook, which fleshes out the AOIP’s first priority. Additionally, Indonesia has plans to convene “flagship events” including the Youth Dialogue on Digital Development for Sustainable Development Goals and the Creative Economy Forum. All of these point to ASEAN’s commitment to actualizing the AOIP and making it a key priority in 2023.
South China Sea’s Code of Conduct
Territorial conflicts in the South China Sea between China and a number of Southeast Asian countries have resulted in escalating tensions and heightened military activity in the region. Efforts to reach a resolution have been challenging, as states outside of the region become increasingly involved. The disputes in the South China Sea have significant implications for regional stability, freedom of navigation, and the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region. Negotiations for a Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea, which was once seen as an interim measure and stopgap to the disputes, have dragged on since 2002.
A look at the Annual Press Statement of the Indonesian minister of foreign affairs shows that Indonesia’s maritime boundary negotiation priorities include bilateral negotiations with Malaysia, the Philippines, and Palau. This suggests that Indonesia may have limited confidence in the potential for multilateral negotiations on maritime disputes, and may not anticipate any significant progress to come out of CoC negotiations, instead prioritizing piecemeal negotiations on a bilateral basis. As expected, the talks held between ASEAN and China in March 2023 yielded no substantial developments. A statement released by China focused on the “practical cooperation projects” in the areas of marine scientific research, environmental protection, and search and rescue operations, but made no mention of the CoC.
ASEAN is expected to focus on four key areas: the Myanmar crisis, sustainable growth, Timor-Leste’s admission into ASEAN as a full member, and implementing the AOIP. However, progress is not expected on the CoC for the South China Sea. Given that these objectives are shaped by both Indonesia’s priorities as the Chair and the problems that would feature prominently in ASEAN this year, closely monitoring these issues can provide insight into the geopolitical dynamics of Southeast Asia in 2023.
The ASEAN agenda this year intersects greatly with United States foreign policy interests in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly realizing the AOIP and building an ASEAN-centered regional architecture. However, an area in which ASEAN falls short is the progress toward conflict resolution in the South China Sea. There are widespread concerns among American policymakers that tensions in the South China Sea could escalate into wider disputes, including a military confrontation or even a hot war between the United States and China. Unfortunately, these concerns will not be laid to rest anytime soon.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.