Summits in Jakarta: Relevance and Limitations
Prof Rajaram Panda
Introduction

Indonesia hosted the 43rd ASEAN Summit and related Summits at the capital city of Jakarta. Two days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to welcome many world leaders for the G-20 Summit that India was hosting on 9-10 September 2023, Prime Minister Modi travelled to Jakarta to participate in several key summits, including the 20th ASEAN-India Summit and the 18th East Asia Summit on 6-7 September.

Like Indian capital city of Delhi decorated with a clean bridal look for the G-20 summit, Jakarta too was all decked up for the summits. The ASEAN-India Summit was the first Summit since the elevation of ties between India and the Association of South East Asian Nations bloc of countries to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2022.

The summit reviewed the progress of India-ASEAN relations and charted the future direction of cooperation. The East Asia Summit provided an opportunity for leaders of ASEAN countries and its eight dialogue partners, including India, to exchange views on issues of regional and global significance. For the past few years, India-ASEAN ties have seen significant upswing. The focus has been boosting cooperation in the areas of trade and investment, besides security and defence.

Theme

The theme for this year’s summit was “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth”, indicating that the ASEAN as an organisation shall be the catalyst for regional economic growth. Started in 2002 in Cambodia, India’s summit with the 10-member grouping consisting of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia on an annual basis have witnessed ties growing significantly with trade and investment flows making perceptible progress. Simultaneously, backed by civilisational links and sizable number of Indian diaspora, the people-to-people contacts have provided greater heft to the deepening of the relationship in the defence and security domains also.

India’s Position

Prior to his departure for Jakarta, Prime Minister Modi remarked that India’s engagement with ASEAN was an important pillar of its “Act East” policy. Since the elevation of the strategic partnership into a comprehensive one, there is a new dynamism in ties between the two sides. It was a good opportunity for PM Modi to deliberate on issues of importance to the region including food and energy security, environment, health, and digital transformation.

Hoping that India and ASEAN shall collectively address these global challenges, PM Modi presented a 12-point proposal to expand cooperation with the bloc in a range of areas such as connectivity, trade and digital transformation and called for building a rules-based post-Covid world order. His proposal included establishment of a multi-modal connectivity and economic corridors linking South East Asia, India, West Asia and Europe and offered to share India’s digital public infrastructure with ASEAN partners.

Other points of his proposal included a call for a collective fight against terrorism, terror financing and cyber-disinformation, all of which faced by Global South needed to be raised in multilateral fora.

Two joint statements were adopted: one on maritime cooperation, the other on food security. PM Modi underlined the importance of securing a free and open Indo-Pacific and elevating the voice of the Global South. It is almost unanimously recognised in all circles of Indian establishment that India’s ties with the 10-member bloc are rooted through civilisational links over centuries. Over the years, the bloc has emerged as one of the most influential groupings in the region. No wonder this fact is well recognised as India and several other countries including the US, China, Japan and Australia are important dialogue partners of the bloc.

PM Modi’s remarked that the 21st century is Asia’s century and therefore it is necessary to build a rule-based post-Covid world order underpinning the importance of human welfare. Reaffirming that ASEAN is the central pillar of India’s Act East policy, PM Modi assured the bloc members that India fully supports the centrality of the bloc and its outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Backed by history and geography connect between India and ASEAN, the two sides share common values, regional unity, peace and prosperity and a shared belief in a multipolar world as the pulling factor. PM Modi’s remarks were in consonance with India’s cherished dream of realising its belief in Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam - One Earth, One Family, One Future.

Modi’s 12-point Roadmap

Modi’s 12-point roadmap[1] also included an ASEAN-India fund for the digital future focusing on cooperation in digital transformation and financial connectivity. He also renewed support to the Economic and Research Institute of ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA). PM Modi also offered to share India’s experience in providing affordable and quality medicines to people through Jan-Aushadhi Kendras and invited the bloc members to join the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure.

Other points of his proposal included a call for a collective fight against terrorism, terror financing and cyber-disinformation, all of which faced by Global South needed to be raised in multilateral fora.

In August 2023, the economic ministers of India and the bloc countries met in Indonesia. During the latest summit, both sides reviewed the India-ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA), which was signed in 2009. A joint committee agreed to a regular, quarterly schedule of negotiations. It was agreed to review the ASEAN-India FTA in 2025. It may be recalled that PM Modi had visited Jakarta in 2018 at the invitation of Indonesian President Joko Widodo. In 2022, India and ASEAN celebrated the 30th anniversary during which leaders of both sides agreed to strengthen cooperation and elevate relations to the level of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. At the bilateral level, India and Indonesia resolved to take bilateral relationship into a new era.

Another significant announcement made by PM Modi in Jakarta was the decision to open an Indian embassy in Dili, Timor Leste, reflecting the importance India attaches to this island nation. Located on the southernmost edge of the Indonesian archipelago, northwest of Australia, Timor Leste joined the ASEAN as an observer in 2022 and a road map has been laid down to facilitate it becoming a full member.

India is also helping some members of the bloc in their defence capacity building and deepening maritime cooperation to help maintain peace and order. In a significant demonstration of its commitment to addressing regional maritime pollution threats, the ICG Ship Samudra Prahari, a specialised Pollution Control Vessel made a port call at Tanjung Priok, Jakarta on 1 October 2023. This visit is a part of India’s ASDEAN initiative for Maritime Pollution Response.[2]

Thus it transpires that the 20th ASEAN-India Summit proved yet another significant milestone in India’s relations with the ASEAN bloc. India and ASEAN are thus well positioned to deal with contemporary challenges.

Geopolitical Rivalries and Indonesia’s Efforts

Being aware of the concerns about geopolitical rivalries that overshadowed the three days of meetings, Indonesia as the Chair called on the world leaders to step back from confrontation. Major countries such as the US, Japan, China and others looked up to strengthen regional partnerships by getting cosy with the 10-member bloc as it transpired that there are fractures within the ASEAN’s stance on key challenges, including its response to the internal conflict in Myanmar and territorial disputes over the South China Sea.[3] Indonesian President Widodo underlined the tensions existing over a host of economic and political issues and reminded the gathering the risk of “destructive” major power rivalries, and observed that every leader has an equal responsibility to adopt measures that would avoid conflict. He warned that the world “will be destroyed if we are not able to manage differences”. Widodo worried that the prospect of a regional conflict in the prevailing situation either over Taiwan or in the flashpoint South China Sea are real and can have serious consequences if a conflict breaks out.

Despite the bloc’s desire for continued stability, and Widodo’s efforts as the Chair to address the Myanmar issue, the grouping has not succeeded as certain outside powers are suspected to be supporting the junta in Myanmar. Even Cambodia’s cosiness with China and allowing China to open a naval base makes the rest of the bloc members worry. As a result, the demographic dividend of the combined population of about 700 million people has not been realised fully as desired.

Some success has been achieved, however, in deepening economic and financial integration under Indonesia’s chairmanship. This includes negotiations to expand or upgrade free-trade areas, establishing a regional cross-border payment system using QR codes and regional currencies, as well as harmonising standards for electric vehicles.[4] Regrettably, both the US-China rivalry is playing out in the region and making the region as a battleground for strategic competition.

China has been rather aggressive in its policies as it pursues its policy of regional domination by forging closer economic ties with the bloc and signed several agreements. These include making agriculture a new growth engine to build food resilience and strengthening technology cooperation in advanced manufacturing, digitization and clean energy. Maritime cooperation and infrastructure development are other areas equally important.

The stances of the US, Japan, India and other democratic countries are however not the same as that of China. The US and other democracies also emphasis cooperation but underscore their share interests with ASEAN in upholding the rules-based international order, particularly in the face of China’s maritime claims and actions in the South China Sea. It was therefore Kamala Harris, the US Vice President, who represented the US this time offered to expand maritime cooperation, promote partnerships on digital innovation and sustainable infrastructure, and set up a new centre to facilitate official engagements with the bloc. The US has also been focusing to build strong defence and security ties with partners in the bloc. That President Joe Biden decided to visit Hanoi directly from New Delhi after attending the G-20 summit and elevated the strategic partnership into a comprehensive one speaks of the importance the US attaches in sculpting ties with Vietnam.

Japan’s Position

For most part of the post-War years, Japan has remained engaged economically with the ASEAN. Now there is a strategic dimension to this relationship as the strategic situation has changed dramatically, necessitating Japan to recalibrate its relationship with the bloc accordingly. This means Japan has chosen a critical role in capacity building of friendly partners in the bloc to cope with the emerging challenges. Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, therefore, agreed to upgrade relations with the ASEAN to a comprehensive strategic partnership ahead of a special summit in December 2023 in Tokyo to mark the 50th anniversary of bilateral cooperation. Kishida also announced a new initiative for infrastructure and technical cooperation.

The biggest challenge is how to deal with Myanmar. The military leaders of Myanmar were not invited to the talks. Surprisingly, the maritime disputes were not mentioned in the group’s final statement, despite the fact that five ASEAN countries had criticised when China published a new regional map asserting possession of nearly the entire resource rich waterway of the South China Sea. This means that the consensus-driven approach of the ASEAN retains primacy of place in any regional discussion despite differences that exist. Thus the ASEAN as an organisation lacking binding policies like the European Union is not a powerful institution it was meant to be. For example, not all the members of the bloc are on the same page on the issue of South China Sea.

Also, since Japan-China ties have remained frosty over the Senkaku island issue and other political differences, the summits were expected to be an ideal opportunity to mend bilateral ties. However, the leaders from both sides missed full-fledged bilateral talks. Instead both sides exposed their deep rift over Japan’s release of treated radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean that commenced on 24 August.[5]

Position of Cambodia

Despite the fact that Cambodia is seen as having a special fascination for China and thus a matter of concern for the rest of the bloc, the new Prime Minister of Cambodia Hun Manet in his first overseas speech urged the leaders and business community to enhance and deepen the ASEAN economic integration and promote intra-ASEAN trade and investment as the world experiences geopolitical tensions and economic uncertainties.[6] Manet expressed concerns about the ongoing Ukraine war and how this has caused ripple effect from the disruption of supply chains and slower growth of the world economy. He underlined that geopolitical rivalry between major powers have caused constant changes to regional and global economy and trade.

Conclusion

On many occasions, ASEAN has shown it lacks unity of purpose and ambition. This brings the centrality issue into question as regional issues face bottlenecks when it comes to the talks of building consensus. For the ASEAN to remain politically relevant, it needs to resolve competing interests among members when it comes to larger regional security and economic issues. While navigating through great power rivalry, ASEAN needs to be watchful that it is not used as a proxy arena for such rivalry and compromise its own larger interests. That is a million dollar question for which there is no easy answer.

References

[1] “PM Modi presents 12-point proposals to expand India-ASEAN cooperation”, The Economic Times, 7 September 2023, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/india/pm-modi-presents-12-point-proposal-for-strengthening-india-asean-cooperation/articleshow/103465836.cms
[2] “ICG Ship strengthens Maritime Cooperation in ASEAN nations”, The Times of India, 4 October 2023.
[3]Gabriel Dominguez, “U.S.-China rivalry dominates ASEAN talks as summits wrap up”, The Japan Times, 8 September 2023, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2023/09/08/asia-pacific/politics/2023-asean-summits-analysis/?utm_source=pianodnu&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=72&tpcc=dnu&pn
[4]Ibid.
[5]Keita Nakamura, “Regional summits a missed opportunity to mend Japan-China ties”, The Japan Times, 8 September 2023, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2023/09/08/asia-pacific/politics/2023-asean-summits-analysis/?utm_source
[6]May Kunmakara, “PM urges ASEAN economic integration”, 5 September 2023, https://phnompenhpost.com/business/pm-urges-asean-economic-integration

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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