Jakarta effect

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2012, 12:00am


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Keep an eye on Indonesia.

After this month's debacle that saw Asean foreign ministers fail to even agree on a routine communique, it was, of course, Indonesia that tried to salvage matters. Its dynamic and relatively youthful top envoy Marty Natalegawa shot around the region in the days after, visiting five nations to re-assert consensus on six basic principles on the South China Sea - a move to staunch the bleeding from the wounds to the grouping's reputation.

Natalegawa's efforts were notable on a number of levels. This year's Asean chair is Cambodia. Yet it was Indonesia that showed the leadership in the tense days that followed a breakdown unprecedented in the 45-year history of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Cambodia's foreign minister, Hor Namhong, was accused of doing China's bidding in the hectic internal debates that surrounded the breakdown and was seen by many Asean insiders as part of the problem, rather than the solution.

With Cambodia due in November to host the annual summit of leaders from Asean and the wider region - sessions that will include the Chinese and American presidents - many expect to see Indonesia playing a key, if discreet, role in the months ahead.

Natalegawa is determined not to let the events of recent weeks poison back-room talks on the so-called code of conduct between Asean and China on the disputed South China Sea, a landmark document geared to better controlling the kind of tensions that have intensified in recent months between Beijing and two members of Asean, the Philippines and Vietnam. The code was pushed heavily by Indonesia last year, when it led the group.

Sino-Asean talks over Asean's proposals are due in September, but Chinese officials have so far publicly committed to discussions only 'when conditions are ripe'. This has led to considerable doubt that the Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan's vision of a deal by the end of the year can be achieved.

Then there is need to harness unity and momentum within Asean to keep its goal of forging an integrated economic and political community by 2015 on track.

Indonesia's role is no accident. For several years now, the country has been eager to play a greater role on the regional and world stage, and its envoys have repeatedly expressed frustration at the limitations of Asean, with its glacial decision-making and consensus diplomacy.

Those frustrations have only deepened of late - with Asean, as Stanford University scholar Dr Donald Emmerson noted, unable to even agree to disagree.

Officials in Jakarta are proud of their young democracy and eager to buttress their regional and international stature befitting the world's fourth most populous nation - and by far the largest nation in Southeast Asia. Indonesia was admitted to the Group of 20 major economies three years ago and is already seen as a leading voice for the developing world.

Finding solutions to South China Sea troubles has long been central to that effort. As one Indonesian scholar noted three years ago, Asean would 'hang separately if it could not hang together over the South China Sea'.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent