Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Asean and Regional Security

Asean is closely mirroring a growing trend worldwide. As the world is becoming more complex and interdependent, and as power is moving away from the West and state-based actors more generally, regional institutions and organizations in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia have become more prominent in world politics. Asean has demonstrated its importance in helping to foster and sustain economic development, the regional and world economies, a rule-based world order, and regional and international cooperation.

A primary example of the above achievements is Asean’s ambitious push to form an economic community (AEC) in 2015. Modeled after Europe’s economic project, this community aims to pool the economic power of southeast Asian countries, making Asean an economic powerhouse, potentially a peer competitor to regional giants India and China. How? As Akira Moretto points out:
The Asean Economic Community lays the groundwork for the establishment of a single market and a single production base, characterized by equitable development from all members. The Asean Economic Community will essentially serve as a platform for free trade across Asean nations, more or less eliminating the import duties that currently protect local producers, and will permit the circulation of goods throughout all member countries.

Of course, Asean faces some obstacles along the way toward economic integration. In terms of economic capacity and organization, national infrastructure, and political and legal systems, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar currently do not function as effectively as the other Asean countries. These countries could easily lag behind in implementing all of the requirements for the new economic community, which would thereby slow down economic integration within the entire community of Asean countries. Moreover, according to Subash Pillai, Asean's director of market integration: "Early [economic] achievements were based on low hanging fruit ... The process of transposing regional commitments into national laws is the biggest (challenge)."

All of that said, Asean has made good progress in traveling a long and rocky path since its early days in the late 1960s. And now, Empowered and flush with confidence, Asean is trying to strengthen its involvement in regional security. Based on a blueprint formalized in 2009, Asean has agreed to set up a political-security community (APSC) by 2015. This APSC strives "to ensure that countries in the region live at peace with one another and with the world in a just, democratic and harmonious environment."

Sounds great, to be sure, as it is another mechanism designed, at least in theory, to bind Asean countries together, bringing them closer, around a host of shared and mutually agreed upon things, such as rules, norms, ideas, goals, and worldviews. Unfortunately, though, intra-Asean cooperation on politics and security affairs lag far behind cooperation on economic affairs. And as a result, no matter the good intentions of Asean leaders and the reasonableness of the project, an APSC will be much tougher to implement than an AEC. Here’s the problem: Shared ideas and norms and goals and worldviews are more aspirational than practical at the moment, as they really do not exist across all Asean countries. And actually, within Asean, there is quite a bit of discord on these issues.

Never was this more evident than at last month’s Asean ministerial meeting (the AMM). In July’s conference of Asean foreign ministers in Cambodia, Asean attempted to address the knotty South China Sea disputes involving several Asian countries. This effort proved unsuccessful.

Asean countries announced that they had drafted a set of rules, a so-called code of conduct, to manage and regulate the various waterway and territorial claims in the South China Sea. The rub, however, is that Asean must negotiate with China, which is not a member of the bloc, to finalize the code and make it operational. But so far, Asean countries have not agreed to embark on negotiations on these rules with China. And there is no telling whether that will happen.

Consider this: Ian Storey points out that:

On July 9, Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying had indicated to ASEAN foreign ministers that China was willing to start talks on a [code of conduct] in September. Two days later, however, as ASEAN wrangled over their final communiqué, Foreign Minister Yang seemed to rule this out when he stated discussions could only take place "when the time was ripe" (Straits Times, July 11). At present ASEAN and China are not scheduled to hold any meetings on the [code of conduct].

And if China does sit down with Asean to discuss the code of conduct, Beijing will certainly look to water it down, rendering any negotiations and agreements essentially meaningless. After all, it is well known that China opposes any attempts to internationalize the South China Sea claims and disputes. Instead, China will only discuss these issues bilaterally, on an individual basis, between Beijing and each of the countries making claims to parts of the South China Sea.

The South China Sea issue caused so much dissension within the bloc that the meeting ended without a customary communique, something that has never happened in the history of Asean.

True to Indonesia’s policy goals of serving as a regional mediator, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa tried to broker a deal to resolve the intra-Asean differences. Natalegawa spearheaded 18 different versions of the communique, in a laborious effort to mollify the concerns of various Asean countries.

But despite these efforts, the attempts at a communique finally broke down amid squabbles between Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. In short, Vietnam and the Philippines wanted the communique to reference the recent China-Philippines deadlock at the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Meantime, Cambodia, a friend and ally of China, blocked all moves to mention anything about the events at the Scarborough Shoal.

The Philippines were not pleased. Its ministry of foreign affairs issued a statement highly critical of Cambodia for "consistently opposing any mention of the Scarborough Shoal at all" and for thwarting efforts to complete and publicly release a mutually agreed upon communique.

In response, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong declared that "we issue the joint communique without mention of the South China Sea dispute ... but some member countries repeatedly insisted to put the issue of the Scarborough Shoal....I have told my colleagues that the meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers is not a court, a place to give a verdict about the dispute."

Further, Hor claimed Cambodia has not taken sides in the South China Sea disputes. And he deflected blame over the failure to finalize a communique, saying that the entire bloc of Asean countries is responsible for the fiasco.

But the story did not end here. And once again, Indonesia played a valuable role. A few days after the AMM, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono dispatched his trusted go-to troubleshooter foreign minister Marty Natalegawa to five Southeast Asian capitals in an effort to restore Asean unity and cohesion. According to Natalegawa: "Indonesia took the initiative to recalibrate ASEAN through the 36-hour effort, shuttle diplomacy, visits and working the phones and we can now reach a common position again."

His time and effort resulted, finally, in a 6-point statement, one that excluded the most heated and controversial issues. This statement revealed that Asean countries agreed to "draft and implement a regional code of conduct, respect international law and exercise self-restraint."

Although Indonesia was able to help Asean salvage some face, great damage has already been done. What we are now seeing is a bloc that is polarized, at least on security affairs, by the rise of China. Through anonymous interviews with Reuters, the exact extent of the tensions within Asean has fully come to light.

"It was one of the most heated meetings in the history of ASEAN," one diplomat said. Another described Cambodia, which holds the revolving ASEAN chairmanship this year, as "the worst chair", and said China had effectively bought its loyalty and that of some other states with economic largesse.
What are the implications of the above series of events?

1. If Asean and China cannot finalize the code of conduct anytime soon, the entire region is at risk of further contentious naval standoffs in the South China Sea. And the more that these incidents occur, the greater the chances for militarized conflict. Let’s face it: as these incidents have manifested themselves over time, the involved parties have become increasingly exasperated and distrustful of others. This has contributed to an escalation of rhetoric and activities in the South China Sea, to the point that we are now routinely witnessing naval crises in the waters.

For instance, as pointed out by Manuel Mogato and Stuart Grudgings, "[l]ast month Beijing said it had begun ‘combat-ready’ patrols around waters claimed by Vietnam after voicing strong opposition to a Vietnamese law asserting sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands."

Further adding to these difficulties, according to Mogato and Grudgings, is that simmering nationalism is narrowing the likelihood that a code of conduct eventually gets finalized. Public sentiment in China, Vietnam, and the Philippines says that citizens do not want their leaders to back down or to forgo historical claims. This only makes compromise more difficult and agreements harder to reach, all while keeping the status quo intact.

2. The dissension within Asean raises serious questions about the bloc. Indonesian Foreign Minister Natalegawa summed it up nicely when he said, "How can ASEAN play a central role if it doesn't have a common position?" Importantly, deep and protracted disagreements threaten Asean on a number of levels. In particular, they unwind cohesion and any sense of community within the bloc, diminish the prospect of integration, and impair Asean’s ability to function as a problem-solving entity in southeast Asia and in Asia more generally. Should these things continue to occur, as happened in the AMM, Asean will find its image and status sharply tarnished.

3. China has emerged a winner. Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy, argues that "[t]his is the first major breach of the dyke of regional autonomy....China has now reached into ASEAN's inner sanctum and played on intra-ASEAN divisions." And if China can do it once, considering it has Cambodia in its corner, it likely can do it again when future opportunities arise. In the short-term, Chinese moves can restrain Asean’s ability to project power and influence. But more ominously, over the long-run, Beijing could conceivably possess enough leverage over Asean so that the bloc is effectively a tool of Chinese foreign policy. Asean leaders must be vigilant of these possibilities, if they want to preserve any sense of independence and credibility for the bloc.

4. We also must wonder whether tensions and disagreements over security issues will bleed into (slightly) less sensitive areas like economic cooperation? Will they block attempts at economic integration? Or can Asean countries push back against this? Above all, as my colleague Yohanes Sulaiman points out: "Asean countries must have enough political will to stay together and turn Asean into a binding organization; otherwise, it faces disintegration. Therefore, the Phnom Penh summit should be used for introspection and possibly a great time to think of the future of Asean itself."

*UPDATE: This is an early draft of a section of a recently completed conference paper. The conference will be held in September, in Jakarta.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Explaining Indonesia's "Collective Amnesia"

Last week, the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights released a report declaring the purge against communists in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in 1965 was a "serious human rights violation." In response, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono instructed the attorney general to launch an investigation to follow up on the report.

There were some squabbles in the beginning, when the House Deputy Speaker Priyo Budi Santoso raised the ire of human rights activists by suggesting that Indonesia should stop investigating past human rights violations. Hailing from the Golkar Party, which is closely associated even today with Suharto's new order, Mr. Priyo of course does not want further investigations into this dark past. At this point, Golkar is generally leading in public opinion polls, with many analysts predicting Golkar to win handily the 2014 national election. The last thing it needs is to have Suharto's guilt exposed.

Yet as this Foreign Policy article noted, public reactions were muted. Furthermore, the article makes the provocative argument that:

Anyone wondering why the systemic culture of impunity, and with it the culture of violence, are so notoriously strong in Indonesia, may have found the answer this week. They are deeply embedded, along with the nation's collective amnesia.
Really? Is there such thing as a "culture of violence?" How do we know there's a "culture of violence" when we see it? While Indonesia does have its share of violence, notably the uncontrolled vigilante groups comprised of religious fanatics and various forms of police brutality, it could, however, be argued that these are symptoms of weak state institutions.

Besides, think about the United States in the 19th century or Hitler's Germany. The United States in the 19th century was a fairly violent society. Germany under Hitler put millions of Jews in the ghetto and later the concentration camps where they met their demise. Yet, we rarely hear that a "culture of violence" exists today in the United States or Germany. And to the extent that violence does occur in both countries, such acts are usually explained as the work of extremists and outcasts in society. Could such a culture disappear overnight?

It is not that culture does not matter, mind you. Properly defined, it could explain, for instance, why Singapore's bureaucrats perform better compared to Indonesia's (e.g. stronger adherence to rule of law, better work ethics, etc.) Violence, however, is poorly defined and has overly broad causes and implications (e.g. poor policing, state's passivity). In short, in my view, "culture of violence" is simply an easy way out, an answer to a question that in the end does not illuminate us at all.

To get a better understanding of this so-called "national amnesia," let's review some of the forces and events surrounding the tumultuous political scene in 1965.
  1. The political situation in Indonesia in 1965 was thoroughly toxic, with sharp polarization dividing the political landscape. At that time, the Communists were seen as ascendant thanks to their strong organization. It needs to be stressed, however, that the majority of members of the Communists weren't true believers, but rather people who saw the communists as the only entity truly concerned with the poor, while the rest of political elite were seen as out of touch, arrogant politicians. 
  2. The Communists had a terrible relationship with the Moslem organizations, notably the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Mohammadiyah. These organizations abhored the communists in part because the Communists were considered atheists, and also in part because of differences over land ownership. Moslem organizations were landowners -- not unlike the Catholic Church during the French Revolution--while the Communists were all for redistribution of the ownership of the land, and often stressed the need to do so violently. 
  3. Tension was high, with both the Communists and their opponents resorting to vicious rhetoric. The Communists, for instance, declared that "the Motherland is pregnant and going to give birth soon," which was seen as a forewarning that they would launch a revolution. At the same time, the Moslem clerics warned of an upcoming holy war.
  4. The military was badly split. While the officers professed their loyalty to President Sukarno, some were accused as less than loyal, such as professional and staunch anti-Communist generals such as General Yani and General Nasution. Other military men, such as Colonel Untung, were seen as totally devoted to Sukarno. There were also those considered as indoctrinated and too close to the communists. These last two groups were convinced that the "less loyal" officers were planning to carry out a purge after Sukarno passed away.
  5. Sukarno was sick, with doctors believing that he would not live very long, adding to the uncertainty of the situation.
In the evening of September 30, 1965, the pro-Sukarno and pro-Communist factions of the military struck and tried to arrest and bring those "less loyal" to trial. Due to a host of blunders, including miscommunications, the suspected generals ended up dead.

The death of the generals, in turn, validated the fear of the anti-Communists that the Communists were capable of anything and would massacre their opponents. At the same time, the anti-Communist officers rallied together under Suharto and launched a counterattack. The problem was that they had to cover a huge area with few soldiers.

In the end, the anti-Communist officers ganged up with the anti-Communist religious leaders and youth groups to launch a bloody purge against the Communists. It was a bloody and messy affair, resulting in many deaths, with death count ranging from as low as 50,000 to as high as 3 million people. Of note, the religious and youth groups actually conducted many of the killings.

This is a reason there has been a "collective amnesia." Yes, the killings were horrific. But it is likely that many people actually saw them as part of a war, which did not need any accounting for the horror unleashed in that period.

Moreover, consider that many of the current political elite have connections to those involved in the killings. Sarwo Edhie, the commander of the battalion responsible for some of the massacres, for instance, was a father-in-law of Indonesia's current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. As noted above, Golkar Party, which is expected to end up in 2014 as Indonesia's largest political party, commonly uses President Suharto in its campaign gimmicks. Even the PDI-P could also be implicated, as then President Sukarno had a hand in approving the failed "coup" that led to the bloody counterattack. With this in mind, then, there has been a longstanding collective political incentive to sweep the brutality and violence under the rug.

It's no surprise that people have developed a "collective amnesia."