Indonesia, as the biggest nation among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is crucial in forging regional cooperation in East Asia. In the Chairman’s statement of the Sixth East Asia Summit (EAS) held on 19 November 2011 in Bali, the Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono emphasized the fundamental need of promoting peace, stability and economic prosperity in the East Asian region. He stressed the importance of the EAS in the region’s cooperation. In this context, this article asks why Indonesia prefers the EAS over the ASEAN Plus Three (APT).
Why is Indonesia skeptical of the APT?
Indonesia has always played a leadership role within the ASEAN framework, but since the establishment of the APT as a formal regional forum, bigger powers, particularly China and Japan, have begun greater involvement in the forum with various economic and political agendas. Both the powers have different interests which is diluting the ASEAN’s interests. Policymakers in Indonesia believe that the ASEAN has transformed into a battle ground for the big powers, which has undermined and sidelined Indonesia’s importance. Indonesia also feels that in the current APT forum, it is losing in inter-regional trade to its competitors such as Thailand and Malaysia.
Another major reason of the skepticism is the rise of China and its constant pressure in the region; to accommodate this pressure is hardly possible for ASEAN members. Most countries in East Asia have historical animosities with Japan; they are unwilling to cooperate with Japan in political and strategic matters thereby favouring China despite its assertiveness in the region. China harvests these animosities as well. For instance, in the APT forum, South Korea is an important country with a huge economic capacity and an unwillingness to cooperate with Japan. Therefore, it often goes in favor of China in various matters.
After the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 in particular, Malaysia, South Korea and others have also harboured strong suspicions of the presence of Western countries and their financial institutions in the region. This also helps China to play a more pro-active role in the region. Indonesia therefore believes that it is losing heavily in the current APT structure and wants an alternative framework beyond the APT; willing to cooperate with countries such as India, Australia and the US in the EAS forum.
What does Indonesia expect from the EAS?
The EAS was established in 2005, aiming to promote peace, stability and economic prosperity in the region. Besides economic integration in the region, this forum also aims to cooperate in security and strategic matters. Indonesia expects more space for itself and for ASEAN as well, together with an inclusive East Asian regional framework. The participation of India, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and the US in the forum would fundamentally alter the overall power configuration in East Asia. The participation of big powers in a regional structure also empowers ASEAN members to increase their bargaining power in dealing with China and other big powers, where they can use one card against another.
The economic presence of major EAS countries in Southeast Asia is huge. These countries also have roles to play in regional political and security affairs. So even though China may be unwilling to include countries like India, Australia and the US in the regional scene it would be difficult to keep them out.
What is the way forward?
In the current political economy of East Asia, the APT has a specific remit to mitigate the financial crisis and strengthen economic integration in the region. Both China and Japan have major stakes in it. The EAS, on the other hand, is a loose framework of cooperation based on ‘open regionalism’. Its focus includes political, economic, security and a wide range of issues, which are not yet properly structured.
APT has had some concrete achievements like the Chiang Mai Initiatives, and it is now playing a role in regional economic integration. But the formalization of integration through the APT framework is contested, and is still viewed with different perspectives among its members. This contesting perspective persists in the EAS as well.
Summing up, one can conclude that the participation of major countries in the EAS would enable the creation of a multi-polar space in the region which would be free from one country’s dominance. Besides, the opportunities that East Asia would be presented with in the long-run are also likely to strengthen the EAS. This forum has the possibility to represent the region inclusively, where inter-regional trading relations are already closely linked.