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Indonesia's role in ASEAN: A

case of incomplete and sectorial
Ralf Emmers
Published online: 06 Jun 2014.

To cite this article: Ralf Emmers (2014) Indonesia's role in ASEAN: A case of
incomplete and sectorial leadership, The Pacific Review, 27:4, 543-562, DOI:

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09512748.2014.924230


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The Pacific Review, 2014
Vol. 27, No. 4, 543 562, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09512748.2014.924230

Indonesia’s role in ASEAN: A case of

incomplete and sectorial leadership

Ralf Emmers
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Abstract Indonesia is often regarded as the natural leader of the Association of

Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in light of its geographical dimensions, large
population, strategic position and natural resources. The country has felt entitled to
a position of leadership and has generally been recognized by the other ASEAN
members as first among equals. While the de facto leadership of Indonesia has
traditionally been accepted as conventional wisdom, little attention has been given
to the extent to which Jakarta has actually succeeded in exercising leadership in
ASEAN and how its attempt to do so has been perceived by the other Southeast
Asian states. The paper explores this question by focusing on Indonesia’s ability to
provide international public goods in the areas of security and economics, engage
in conflict management and promote institution building. It argues that the country
has sought to establish a stable and autonomous security environment, to conduct
conflict meditation efforts in the Cambodian conflict and the South China Sea
disputes, and to develop institutional mechanisms to promote security, democracy
and human rights among other issues. Still, Indonesia’s leadership in ASEAN has
been incomplete due to resistance from some members to its preference for an
autonomous regional order and in recent years a democratic form of domestic
governance. Its leadership has so far also been limited to the political and security
spheres, leaving other sectors, like the economy, to others.

Keywords leadership; institutionalism; Indonesia; ASEAN; Southeast Asia;

regional autonomy.

The paper studies the exercise of leadership in the international relations
of Southeast Asia by discussing Indonesia’s foreign policy toward the Asso-
ciation of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Indonesia’s foreign policy
has been defined by both a feeling of vulnerability, due to domestic weak-
nesses and fragmentation, and also one of regional entitlement that has

Dr Ralf Emmers is associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies

(RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.
Address: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University
(NTU), South Spine, S4, Level B4, Nanyang Avenue, Singapore 639798. E-mail: isremmers@

Ó 2014 Taylor & Francis

544 The Pacific Review

emanated from its military struggle for independence, geographical dimen-

sions, the nation’s large population of 240 million people as well as its stra-
tegic position and natural resources (Leifer 1983). In addition to its vast
land area, the largest in Southeast Asia, Indonesia consists of an extensive
maritime territory that derives from its status as an archipelagic state.
Moreover, it is the largest Muslim nation and since the late 1990s the third
largest democracy in the world.
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Indonesia has often been discussed as the natural leader of ASEAN in

light of its geography, large population, strategic position and natural resour-
ces. This characterization of Indonesia as a de facto leader of the Associa-
tion has been traditionally accepted both in policy circles as well as in the
academic literature dedicated to ASEAN and the international politics of
Southeast Asia (Acharya 2001; Anwar 1994; Caballero-Anthony 2005;
Haacke 2002; Leifer 1989; Liow and Emmers 2006). This long-held percep-
tion shifted as a result of the Asian financial crisis of 19976 98 and the down-
fall of Indonesian President Suharto in May 1998. The economic and
political turmoil that followed these events led many commentators to argue
that ASEAN had become leaderless causing the weakening of regional inte-
gration in Southeast Asia (Ahmad and Ghoshal 1999; Anwar 2006; Ganesan
2004; Smith 1999). This perception changed again after the presidential elec-
tion of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2004 and his renewed focus on for-
eign policy and ASEAN (Emmerson 2012; Sukma 2012).
While Indonesia has been regarded as a de facto or nominal leader of
ASEAN due to its physical attributes for a long time, insufficient attention
has been given to the extent to which Jakarta has actually succeeded in
exercising leadership in ASEAN since its formation in 1967 and how its
attempt to do so has been perceived by the other Southeast Asian states.
This paper seeks to contribute to the existing literature by providing a sys-
tematic assessment of Indonesia’s leadership in ASEAN. It examines its
leadership record by assessing Indonesia’s ability to offer international
public goods in areas of security and economics, engage in conflict manage-
ment through mediation efforts, and promote institution building in areas
that include security, democracy and human rights.
Preserving ASEAN’s autonomy in regional affairs has historically been
central to Indonesia’s foreign policy and its exercise of leadership in the
Association. The country has responded to developments that have under-
mined the autonomy of the Southeast Asian region by seeking to promote,
as an international public good, regional solutions to regional problems to
reduce external interference in regional affairs (Leifer 1999). Indonesia
has also sought to engage in conflict management through mediation
efforts, especially in the context of the Cambodian conflict (1979 1991)
and the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Finally, it has contrib-
uted to institution building in ASEAN. For example, as an extension of its
domestic politics, Indonesia has in recent years encouraged the promotion
of democracy and the respect for human rights in ASEAN.
R. Emmers: Indonesia’s Role in ASEAN 545

Nevertheless, despite its repeated attempts to exercise leadership, the

paper argues that Indonesia has only exercised an incomplete and sectorial
form of leadership that has been driven by a responsive approach to
regional events. Its leadership record has been incomplete due to resis-
tance from some ASEAN members to its preference for an autonomous
regional order and in recent years for a democratic form of domestic gover-
nance. Finally, its leadership has so far been limited to the political and
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security spheres, leaving other sectors, like the economy, to others.

Leadership and international relations theory

From the viewpoint of the existing International Relations literature, many
of the aspects of states’ leadership in international institutions are associ-
ated with regime theory and hegemonic stability theory. ASEAN itself is
often discussed in the literature in the context of regime theory (see
Emmers 2003). In the introduction to a special edition of International
Organization, Stephen Krasner (1982) put forward a definition of the term
‘regime’ that has become generally accepted in the literature. He wrote:
‘Regimes can be defined as sets of implicit or explicit principles, norms,
rules, and decision-making procedures around which actors’ expectations
converge in a given area of international relations’ (Krasner 1982, p. 186).
Regimes must be separated from temporary arrangements, which are
immediately transformed by changes in power distribution or interests.
Moreover, regime behavior cannot be based exclusively on interests but
needs to include some sense of general obligation. The principle of reci-
procity is for example an element that characterizes regime dynamics.
Charles Kindleberger (1973) first developed the theory of hegemonic
stability as an approach to regime creation and dynamics. Hegemonic sta-
bility theory argues that the creation and persistence of an international
regime is dependent on the influence and participation of a single powerful
state. Regime dynamics are associated with the capacity of a hegemonic
player to promote and lead cooperative arrangements within the interna-
tional system.
Hegemonic stability theory has been adopted by neo-realism and neo-
liberal institutionalism although the two schools of thought differ in their
interpretation of the model. Neo-realists have advanced hegemonic stabil-
ity theory to explain the formation and activities of an international regime
(Grieco 1995; Mearsheimer 1994/1995). According to neo-realism, the heg-
emon uses its power in shaping the regime and in making sure that it con-
tinues to favor its own interests. A hegemon is expected to directly and
sometimes aggressively dominate weaker states. It prevails over others as a
result of its capability to use force, its willingness to exercise its predomi-
nant power, and the relative military weakness of other states (Shambaugh
1997). Significantly, neo-realists argue that an international regime cannot
546 The Pacific Review

survive the decline of the hegemon, as they analyze international regimes

as restricted instruments in the power politics game.
Neo-liberal institutionalism also relies on the theory of hegemonic stabil-
ity to explain the formation and development of an international regime.
Yet, it assumes that hegemons can offer international public goods and
help resolve collective action problems. A great deal of attention is given
to the issue of information sharing (Keohane and Martin 1995). Regimes
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are expected to facilitate inter-state cooperation by reducing the potential

costs involved and provide information on the intentions and interests of
the participants. Regimes are established and continue to exist as a result
of ‘the benefits they provide: by facilitating communication, information,
transparency; by reducing mutual threat perceptions and worst-case think-
ing; and by undercutting the self-fulfilling prophecies that lie at the heart
of the security dilemma’ (Hurrell 1995, p. 352). Finally, institutionalists
claim that a regime can survive the decline of the hegemon due to the ben-
efits it provides to the other participants.
The institutionalist perspective of what a hegemon is supposed to do and
how it is expected to behave brings us back to the notion of leadership.
The latter is associated with legitimacy, persuasion, accommodation and
responsibility. The exercise of leadership is perceived by others as benign
and non-threatening to their survival. It involves the ability to provide solu-
tions to foreign policy problems by convincing or co-opting other states to
get involved (Cossa and Glosserman 2012). This needs to be done by
engaging other governments, understanding their perspectives and priori-
ties, as well as forging constructive and inclusive coalitions. Rather than
imposing its solutions and actions on others, a leader, here characterized as
a benign hegemon, is expected to provide international public goods
through concerted dialog and engagement. The provision of public goods
can include a peaceful strategic environment, the freedom of navigation
and sustainable economic development. Beyond offering international
public goods, a leader is also expected to help resolve collective action
problems and promote institution building (Dent 2012). Finally, the exer-
cise of leadership depends on a series of factors. They include the necessary
domestic capabilities to transform national interests into effective policies.
The recognition of leadership by others also depends on that particular
state possessing the necessary material (economy, population, territory)
and normative attributes (legitimacy, confidence, reputation).
This section has introduced a neo-liberal institutionalist perspective of
international regimes and hegemonic stability theory and linked it to the
notion of leadership. The next sections assess the extent to which Indonesia
has succeeded in acting as a leader in ASEAN. The is done by applying
three conditions, namely the provision by Indonesia of international public
goods in the security and economic areas, its engagement in conflict man-
agement in Southeast Asia through diplomatic efforts, and its contribution
to institution building including in areas of security and good governance.
R. Emmers: Indonesia’s Role in ASEAN 547

International public goods

Let us start by assessing Indonesia’s ability to provide international public
goods by focusing especially on the fostering of a stable security and eco-
nomic environment. Central to Indonesia’s regional vision has been its his-
torical aspiration to play a managerial role and organize Southeast Asian
relations independently from external interference. In contrast, the coun-
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try has traditionally been less committed to economic leadership in

ASEAN due to its lack of economic might.

The years that preceded the formation of ASEAN are critical to under-
stand Indonesia’s leadership style in the Association. As the first presi-
dent of Indonesia (1945 1967), Sukarno resisted the establishment of
the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, which he viewed as a British neo-
colonial design in Southeast Asia, by starting a campaign of Konfrontasi
(Confrontation) based on coercive diplomacy and small-scale armed
activities (see Hindley 1964; Mackie 1974). Sukarno’s gradual political
downfall followed an abortive coup in October 1965. General Suharto
was elected acting president in March 1967 and initiated a new era in
Indonesian politics known as the New Order. An initial process of recon-
ciliation between Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur led to the creation of
ASEAN in August 1967.1
Suharto’s policy toward ASEAN was influenced by a desire to reassure
his partners. Jakarta was aware of the ongoing mistrust toward Indonesia
and it adopted an approach to regionalism characterized by self-restraint
(Jorgensen-Dahl 1982). Indonesia still felt that it was entitled to a position
of natural leadership in ASEAN, however. Djiwandono (1989, p. 160)
explains that Indonesia’s ‘membership in ASEAN may accord it, implicitly,
the status of first among equals without resort to an aggressive confronta-
tion policy’. Indonesia’s ambition to be recognized as a natural leader of
ASEAN was gradually realized through its exercise of benevolent power.
Indonesia became to be perceived as the backbone of regional security and
as first among equals within the Association. The other members were will-
ing to accept its position of leadership in the Association in exchange for its
adoption of a non-threatening and constrained foreign policy.
Indonesia did not succeed, however, in realizing as an international
public good its vision of a stable regional order based on the exclusive man-
agerial role of the Southeast Asian states. Unlike Indonesia’s regional
vision, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore associated the quest for
order in Southeast Asia with the involvement of external parties. They con-
tinued therefore after the formation of ASEAN to rely on the availability
of external countervailing power, primarily through their tacit or formal
alliances with the United States, to ensure their security. Indonesia’s
548 The Pacific Review

preference for regional autonomy was therefore not favored by all the
other ASEAN states.
For example, in November 1971, the ASEAN members registered a call
for regional autonomy by signing in Kuala Lumpur the Zone of Peace,
Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN). It repeated a determination, previ-
ously announced in the Bangkok Declaration of 1967, to avoid external
intervention. However, while expressing a regional ambition to maintain
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some form of independence from external interference, no consensus was

reached on its possible application and ZOPFAN made, therefore, no spe-
cific demands on the member states. This was predominantly because
Indonesia’s aspirations were not shared by all. The Philippines and Thai-
land were allies of the United States and wanted to maintain their links
with Washington to ensure their security. Singapore remained fearful of
absorption by Malaysia or Indonesia and perceived the American involve-
ment in the region as vital to its security. In short, the Philippines, Singa-
pore and Thailand wished to preserve their external ties and independence
of manoeuvre with the great powers.
In the contemporary security environment, growing Sino-US competition
and their respective quest for regional influence is increasing external inter-
ference in Southeast Asia. China’s regional status has risen substantially over
the last few years and its power projection and capability to sustain military
force in Southeast Asia have strengthened, especially in the South China Sea.
With the military withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama admin-
istration has decided to refocus its diplomacy and military forces toward the
Asia-Pacific, as part of a larger ‘pivot’ or rebalancing strategy. The latter has
caused concern in Beijing. As Beijing and Washington compete for regional
influence, there is ‘little doubt that the two are engaged in a struggle for the
“hearts and minds” of Southeast Asia’ (Valencia 2012).
Rising Sino-US rivalry in Southeast Asia further undermines Indonesia’s
aspiration for regional autonomy. Jakarta wishes to maintain good rela-
tions both with China and the United States. In his opening address at the
Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2012, President Yudhoyono (2012) declared
that ‘[w]ith their enormous economic potential, it is natural that many
countries want to build good relations with both China and the United
States’. The Indonesian military is deepening its defense ties with the
United States through the purchase of American military hardware and by
joining military exercises (Lutfia 2012). Still, Jakarta is keen to preserve its
traditional ‘free and active’ policy (politik bebas aktif) in international rela-
tions and to prevent great power competition in Southeast Asia. In recent
years, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has referred to a
‘dynamic equilibrium’ concept that welcomes all the major powers to be
engaged in the Asia-Pacific in an attempt at preserving ASEAN’s central-
ity and autonomy.
Besides external interference, Indonesia has at times faced domestic
instability and fragmentation leading even some analysts to speculate on
R. Emmers: Indonesia’s Role in ASEAN 549

its possible disintegration (see Huxley 2002). This has undermined its lead-
ership position within the Association and its attempt at offering an inter-
national public good in the security area. While Suharto’s commitment to
regional cooperation had been viewed regionally as a pillar for Southeast
Asian security from the early 1970s until the 1990s, Indonesia was included
in regional calculations as a source of instability following the Asian finan-
cial crisis of 19976 1998. Student demonstrations calling for Reformasi
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eventually led to the resignation of President Suharto in May 1998. The

primary danger for Indonesia’s neighboring states arose from non-tradi-
tional security problems and from the consequences of its domestic insta-
bility. These issues not only included the threat of radical Islam but also
the undocumented migration of Indonesian workers, the rise of sea piracy
attacks in the Straits of Malacca, and the recurrence of ecological disasters
with regional repercussions.
Furthermore, Indonesia was forced to renounce its sovereignty over East
Timor in 1999. The loss of territory was a deep humiliation for Jakarta and
in particular for its armed forces. Separatist movements in Aceh and Irian
Jaya and sectarian violence in the Moluccas also brought further instability
to domestic politics. The ASEAN members officially declared in 1999 their
support for the territorial integrity of Indonesia in light of the events in
Aceh and Irian Jaya. The need for such a collective position humiliated a
state that had traditionally represented the political center of the
Indonesia was already significantly weakened by the consequences of the
Asian financial crisis when it was forced to cope with the threat of interna-
tional terrorism in the post-96 11 environment. The ambivalence and lack
of political will of Indonesia’s President Megawati Sukarnoputri led to
inertia and frustrated the United States and some ASEAN partners, as
indicated by remarks delivered by the Singaporean Senior Minister Lee
Kuan Yew in February 2002. He declared that the city-state would be at
risk of terrorist attacks as long as leaders of regional extremist cells were at
large in Indonesia (Latif and Wong 2002). The seriousness of the terrorist
threat in Indonesia was demonstrated by the devastating bomb attacks on
the island of Bali on 12 October 2002 and a car bomb explosion at the Mar-
riott hotel of Jakarta on 5 August 2003. Thus, following the political tur-
moil of 1998 1999, Indonesia became ‘a source of regional and
international concern’ after having been perceived for nearly three decades
as a significant contributor to Southeast Asian stability (Sukma 2012, p.
77). As will be discussed in the final section, Indonesia’s ability to be a net
contributor to regional security was enhanced again by the mid-2000s after
the restoration of political stability and economic growth.
In short, Indonesia has arguably failed to provide on its own a stable
security environment as an international public good. Indonesia has tradi-
tionally favored a regional order determined primarily by the Southeast
Asian states and it has thus aspired for an autonomous security
550 The Pacific Review

environment unaffected by external intervention. Yet, despite Indonesia’s

preference, other ASEAN members have historically rejected this concep-
tion of the regional order and relied on ties with external actors to ensure
their security. Most member states have not perceived the Association as a
security arrangement that can replace existing bilateral links with external
players, especially with the United States. The current Sino-US rivalry in
Southeast Asia has further undermined Jakarta’s traditional call for
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regional autonomy. In addition, Indonesia’s own domestic instability has at

times undermined its ability to foster a stable security environment.

Domestic economic weakness has historically restrained Indonesia’s ability
to provide as an international public good sustained economic development
in Southeast Asia. President Suharto already acknowledged this in 1969
when he stated: ‘We shall only be able to play an effective role if we our-
selves are possessed of a great national vitality’ (Leifer 1983, p. 181).
Economic success was first achieved in the 1980s and early 1990s, encourag-
ing Suharto to adopt a more active foreign policy in an attempt at raising
the country’s profile internationally (Sukma 1995; Vatikiotis 1993). Yet, the
consequences of the Asian financial crisis severely weakened Indonesia’s
leadership role and influence. The country was severely affected by the
financial crisis that drastically worsened its socio-economic problems. It was
embarrassed by the International Monetary Fund’s imposition of strict con-
ditions on loans required to stabilize its domestic economy. It took years for
Indonesia to fully recover from the consequences of the crisis.
In light of its recurrent economic weakness, Indonesia’s attempt at
exercising leadership has mostly been sectorial in its approach, focused
predominantly on the political and security spheres while leaving the eco-
nomic sector to neighboring states. Economic leadership in ASEAN has
primarily emanated from Singapore and to a lesser extent Malaysia and
Thailand, as for instance illustrated by Singaporean proposals to establish
an ASEAN Free Trade Area and an ASEAN Economic Community in
1992 and 2003, respectively.
While unable to contribute to economic leadership in ASEAN, Indone-
sia still used diplomatic pressure to block initiatives that might have under-
mined its own national interests and policy preferences. For example,
Indonesia rejected Malaysia’s proposal in 1990 for an East Asian
Economic Group, as it was concerned that its own influence would be
reduced in a larger grouping involving the larger East Asian economies.
Suharto therefore refused to endorse Dr Mahathir’s proposal, which the
Malaysian prime minister eventually modified into an East Asian Eco-
nomic Caucus in October 1991. This incident indicated that no major initia-
tive even in the economic sphere could be adopted without the prior
R. Emmers: Indonesia’s Role in ASEAN 551

consent of Jakarta. That said, Indonesia was not in a position to stop the
formation of the ASEAN C Three (China, Japan, South Korea) in 1997 in
the midst of the Asian financial crisis.
Indonesia’s inability to offer economic leadership may be about to
change, however, as the country is today an emerging economic power that
seeks to play a greater role in regional and global affairs (see Basri 2012).
The Indonesian economy escaped relatively unscathed the global financial
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crisis of 2008 thanks to strong domestic demand. The country is currently

ranked the fifteenth largest economy in the world and it is the only
ASEAN nation to be a full member of the G20. With annual growth rates
of 5% 6%, its economic expansion is driven not only by the exploitation
of its natural resources but also by an expanding middle class and rapid
growth in domestic consumption and services. Robust economic growth
has already contributed to strengthening Indonesia’s international image
and it may enable Jakarta to play a greater economic role in ASEAN as
well as to contribute to regional economic development in Southeast Asia
in the years to come.

Conflict management
Beyond its incomplete and sectorial provision of international public
goods, Indonesia has sought to exercise leadership in ASEAN by contrib-
uting to conflict management in Southeast Asia through sustained diplo-
matic efforts. Jakarta has focused on two particular conflicts, namely, the
Cambodian conflict and the territorial disputes in the South China Sea
involving China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Cambodian conflict
Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 represented a signifi-
cant challenge to ASEAN and its cardinal institutional principles of
national sovereignty, non-use of force, and non-interference in the affairs
of other states. ASEAN’s response assumed two major forms, which were
primarily determined by Thailand as a frontline state to the conflict. The
members followed a common diplomatic position that consisted of con-
demning Vietnam and calling for the national sovereignty of Cambodia to
be restored and respected. Furthermore, the Association developed a close
partnership with China to exert additional pressure on Vietnam (Emmers
2003). ASEAN also relied on the economic sanctions imposed on Vietnam
by the United States, Japan and other dialog partners.
Indonesia was distressed by the fact that the situation in Cambodia had
led to external interference in Southeast Asia, chiefly from China and the
Soviet Union that supported Vietnam militarily and economically. The
reliance on China and a deeper involvement in Cold War antagonism
552 The Pacific Review

frustrated Indonesia’s call for regional autonomy. Furthermore, ASEAN’s

reaction to the Cambodian issue questioned Indonesia’s position of natural
leadership within the Association. Bangkok set the ASEAN stand on
Cambodia and used its right as a frontline state to reject or modify pro-
posals. Thailand consequently became the Association’s political center of
gravity during most of the 1980s (Polomka 1983). The demand for cohesion
and uniformity prevented Indonesia from formulating an independent for-
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eign policy toward Vietnam and to influence the regional order.

Nevertheless, Indonesia regained the initiative when its foreign minister,
Professor Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, organized informal discussions, the
so-called ‘cocktail party’, which first only included the different Khmer fac-
tions before introducing other regional actors. The two-stage approach was
eventually applied in both the first and second Jakarta Informal Meetings
(JIMs) held in July 1988 and February 1989. Organized by Ali Alatas, who
had been appointed Indonesia’s foreign minister in March 1988, the meet-
ings failed to reach a regional solution to the conflict. Yet, they enabled
Indonesia to open negotiations with Phnom Penh and Hanoi and to co-
chair the International Conference on Cambodia held in Paris in October
1991 that settled the conflict. Hence, by acting as a mediator, Indonesia
gained credibility as a responsible and peaceful regional player and reaf-
firmed its position of leadership within ASEAN.

South China Sea disputes

In the early 1990s, Indonesia increased its leadership role in regional con-
flict management by launching the Workshops on Managing Potential
Conflicts in the South China Sea. By avoiding the question of sovereign
jurisdiction, the Workshops were meant to encourage a multilateral dialog
and enhance a peaceful management of the conflict (Emmers 2010). In Jan-
uary 1990, an initial Workshop was organized in Bali that gathered the six
ASEAN states to a preliminary meeting. Held in Bandung in July 1991,
the second event brought together the members of the Association, China,
‘Chinese Taipei’, Vietnam and Laos. In his opening statement, Indonesia’s
Foreign Minister Ali Alatas (1991) declared that ‘our attention and efforts
have been and should continue to be directed towards finding ways to
transform potential sources of conflict into constructive forms of coopera-
tion for mutual benefit’. By hosting the Workshops, Indonesia as a non-
claimant party in the territorial disputes consolidated its position as a lead-
ing regional player. The Workshops were therefore partly motivated by
similar calculations that had led Jakarta to organize the JIMs in the late
Most recently, Indonesia stepped up its leadership role when the
ASEAN foreign ministers failed in July 2012 to come up with a common
statement on the South China Sea disputes and consequently to issue a
R. Emmers: Indonesia’s Role in ASEAN 553

joint communique at the end of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM)

in Phnom Penh. The Philippines had insisted on a reference to the stand-
off between Manila and Beijing at Scarborough Shoal earlier in 2012 but
Cambodia acting as the ASEAN chair and a close economic partner of Bei-
jing refused on the grounds that the territorial disputes with China were
bilateral. The lack of a joint communique, a first in the organization’s 45-
year history, highlighted the lack of unity among the Southeast Asian
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nations. In response, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa

undertook a round of consultative diplomacy and negotiated a watered-
down document acceptable to all. Emanating from Natalegawa’s initiative,
Cambodia released an ASEAN statement a week after the failed AMM
that listed six basic principles on the South China Sea. Among others, it
referred to the exercise of self-restraint and the non-use of force, to an
early adoption of a code of conduct for the South China Sea as well as to
the peaceful resolution of conflicts in accordance with international law,
including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Indonesia
also circulated a ‘zero draft code of conduct’ during an ASEAN informal
meeting held on the sidelines of the opening of the 67th regular session
(Ririhena 2012).
In short, Indonesia’s response to the Cambodian conflict and the South
China Sea disputes has revealed Jakarta’s attempt at exercising leadership.
As a frontline state during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, Thai-
land increased its influence over ASEAN in the 1980s. This Thai influence
frustrated Indonesia’s managerial disposition in Southeast Asia. Yet,
Jakarta succeeded in organizing the JIMs, which opened negotiations with
Phnom Penh and Hanoi and later enabled Indonesia to co-chair the Inter-
national Conference on Cambodia. By acting as a mediator in the conflict,
Indonesia reaffirmed its position of leadership in ASEAN. Similar calcula-
tions motivated Indonesia to launch in 1990 the Workshops on the South
China Sea and to negotiate the six basic principles on the South China Sea
in 2012. These mediation efforts have been part of an Indonesian attempt
at enhancing its leadership position in Southeast Asia.
It is interesting to note, however, that Indonesia has not sought or has
been unsuccessful in settling its own bilateral disputes through ASEAN
mediation. For example, the Ambalat stretch of the Celebes Sea which
Indonesia claims to be part of its territorial waters has been disputed by
Malaysia since 1979. Jakarta has sent numerous notes of protest to Kuala
Lumpur over breaches of its sovereignty in the Ambalat Sea block. How-
ever, at the multilateral level, ASEAN has paid little attention to this issue.

Institution building
Indonesia’s attempt at exercising leadership in ASEAN has also included
efforts at promoting institution building in areas covering security and
554 The Pacific Review

domestic governance. ASEAN has developed institutionally according to

an inter-governmental approach of cooperation. Importantly, its Secretar-
iat has been located in Jakarta since 1976. The Secretariat was first housed
at the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs before being moved to its
own permanent premises in Jakarta in 1981. The Secretariat has remained
the central organ of the Association, playing a facilitating and coordinating
role. That said, it has never been granted executive power. This results
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from the fact that ASEAN has constantly reaffirmed the principles of
national sovereignty and non-interference in the domestic affairs of other
states and has remained an arrangement with no supra-national power or

Bali Summit and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation

Indonesia demonstrated its institutional leadership by hosting the first
ASEAN summit of the heads of state and government held in Bali in
February 1976. Called by the Indonesian president, Suharto (1976)
declared at the opening of the summit that ‘[O]ur concept of security is
inward-looking, namely to establish an orderly, peaceful and stable condi-
tion within each territory, free from any subversive elements and infiltra-
tion, where-ever their origins may be’. The summit came in the wake of
the new political environment that emanated from the US withdrawal
from South Vietnam in 1973 and the communist takeover of Phnom Penh
and Saigon in April 1975 and Laos by the end of the same year. The rapid
success of revolutionary communism surprised the ASEAN states and
shattered hopes of enlarging the Association to all Southeast Asian
nations. Jorgensen-Dahl (1982, p. 84) points out, however, that ‘the com-
munist victory injected an altogether more compelling sense of urgency
into the activities of ASEAN’.
As a collective response to external shocks and a sign of unity and cohe-
sion, the Bali Summit led to two statements: the Declaration of ASEAN
Concord (ASEAN 1976a) and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation
(TAC) in Southeast Asia (ASEAN 1976b). The latter established a norm-
based code of conduct for regional inter-state relations and introduced as
ASEAN’s central principles the respect for national sovereignty and non-
interference in the affairs of other states. Indonesia’s adherence to a stan-
dard code of international behavior further reassured its immediate
The ongoing relevance of the TAC endorsed at the first Bali Summit
should be highlighted (ASEAN 1976b). Since 1976, the TAC has become
the cardinal ASEAN document by providing the members with a code of
conduct for regulating intra-mural relations and managing existing or
potential disputes. Through the TAC, ASEAN has continued to rely on
dialog and emphasized the need for a peaceful and non-confrontational
R. Emmers: Indonesia’s Role in ASEAN 555

approach to cooperation. The document is also at the core of Indonesia’s

proposal at establishing an ASEAN Political and Security Community
(APSC) in Southeast Asia, which is discussed below. In the spirit of the
TAC, the APSC stresses the willingness of the member states to ‘rely
exclusively on peaceful processes in the settlement of intra-regional differ-
ences’ (ASEAN 2003).
Furthermore, the TAC has in recent years been signed by non-ASEAN
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members keen to deepen their relations with the Association. Significantly,

China became the first non-ASEAN nation to sign the TAC in 2003,
thereby indicating its accommodative foreign policy toward the Southeast
Asian states, at least rhetorically. All the participants of the East Asia
Summit (ASEAN plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Rus-
sia, South Korea and the United States) and others have in the meantime
ratified the treaty. The attributes of the TAC have therefore been accepted
beyond Southeast Asia and have helped the ASEAN countries in partly
re-defining their relations with external powers.
Still, it should be noted that Indonesia was not the sole architect of the
TAC and that the relevance of the treaty owes to the continuous support
of not only Jakarta but also of all the other member states. Moreover, the
TAC has represented an informal style of cooperation that rejects a rapid
and sustained institutionalization of inter-state cooperation. The on-going
significance of a treaty signed in 1976 has therefore had a cost to the institu-
tional development of the Association.

Bali Concord II and domestic governance

Indonesia’s ability to push for institution building in ASEAN was greatly
diminished by the Asian financial crisis. The latter did contribute, however,
to the downfall of Suharto and the start of the democratization process in
the country. The presidential election victory of retired three-star General
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2004 helped to restore domestic stability
and a sense of political direction in Jakarta. While foreign policy had not
been a priority in the early years of democratic government in Indonesia,
Jakarta sought again in the 2000s to play up its foreign policy and to reaf-
firm its leadership role in ASEAN through the formation of new institu-
tional mechanisms promoting democracy and human rights (Garnaut
2012). Emmerson (2012, p. 59) explains that ‘Yudhoyono has broadened
the rationale for Indonesian involvement in foreign affairs. A non-eco-
nomic case in point has been his desire to leverage his country’s stature as
the world’s third-largest democracy’.
The year prior to Yudhoyono’s election, Indonesia acted as rotating
chair of the ASEAN Standing Committee and re-engaged with the region
by submitting the idea of an ASEAN Security Community (ASC). Jakarta
sought to ensure the success of the ASEAN summit in Bali in October
556 The Pacific Review

2003 by proposing a new form of regional cooperation that reflected the

domestic transformations in Indonesia. The formation of a security com-
munity was expected to complement the establishment of an economic
community in Southeast Asia, an idea that had been initially proposed by
Singapore. The ASEAN heads of state and government endorsed the Bali
Concord II at their summit meeting in early October 2003, which adopted
a framework for the establishment of a Security Community, an Economic
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Community and a Socio-Cultural Community in Southeast Asia by 2020

(ASEAN 2003). The ASC was later renamed as the APSC and the target
date for its completion was changed to 2015.
Indonesia’s proposal for an APSC constituted an attempt by Jakarta to
regain its lost position of leadership in ASEAN as a consequence of the
Asian financial crisis. It was premised on the assumption that ASEAN
could not move forward without an active participation of its largest mem-
ber. Yet, Indonesia’s vision for the future of ASEAN, based once again on
its own preference for regional autonomy but also the promotion of
democracy and the respect for human rights, sparked controversy and
caused discomfort among some member states wishing to preserve the sta-
tus quo and the lowest common denominator in regional cooperation.
As part of the APSC scheme, Indonesia drafted a plan of action with
over 70 specific proposals and shared its ideas with the other members at
the ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting (SOM) in Yogyakarta in May 2004.
The plan included a call for the establishment of an ASEAN peacekeeping
force to help member countries facing intra-state conflict, demands for the
promotion of democracy and human rights and other controversial pro-
posals. Inherent in the Indonesian initiative was a realization that the tradi-
tional ASEAN model based on a strict application of the non-intervention
principle represented a stumbling block for effective cooperation in South-
east Asia. However, Jakarta was forced to redraft its plan of action after
some of its proposals had been criticized, especially those related to domes-
tic governance. Wain (2004, p. 20) argued at the time that some member
states ‘made it clear by rejecting the plan that they do not regard Indonesia
as first among equals within ASEAN’. At the AMM in July 2004, the for-
eign ministers agreed on a watered-down version of the APSC Plan of
Action, which no longer included the peacekeeping force provision and
other controversial ideas, and recommended its adoption at the ASEAN
summit to be held in Vientiane in November that year.
Nevertheless, Indonesia has continued to link its APSC initiative to the
promotion of democratic values and human rights. Support for democracy
at the ASEAN level has reflected the process of democratization in the
country. Jakarta’s overall success in promoting these values through insti-
tution building has remained questionable, however. It played a key role in
the negotiation of the ASEAN Charter in November 2007 and insisted on
the inclusion of references to democracy and the respect for human rights.
Yet, writing at the time of its adoption, Bowring (2007) rightly pointed out
R. Emmers: Indonesia’s Role in ASEAN 557

that ASEAN unveiled a ‘charter that is supposed to commit the grouping

to democratic and human rights objectives. But non-interference in one
another’s affairs remains the pre-eminent principle, and consensus the
overriding factor in practice’. Indonesia also pushed for the creation of an
ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, which was
eventually established in 2009 although in a compromised and watered-
down form (Sukma 2012, p. 80). The same applies to the ASEAN Human
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Rights Declaration adopted in November 2012 (Santosa and Ririhena

Indonesia regained the initiative by requesting to act as the rotating
chair of the ASEAN Standing Committee in 2011 rather than 2013 as ini-
tially determined by alphabetical order. Jakarta was concerned at the time
that the APSC was lagging behind in terms of its implementation and
wished therefore to exercise renewed leadership by steering the commu-
nity project. The Indonesian chairmanship in 2011 was perceived as a suc-
cess and as an illustration of Jakarta’s leadership role in regional affairs.
Poling and Sander (2012) rightly argue that it ‘pushed the bounds of
ASEAN norms and sought to bring the organization closer to its potential
place as regional fulcrum’. Still, despite Indonesia’s efforts, it is question-
able whether the APSC will be completed and fully implemented by 2015.
In short, Indonesia’s domestic transformation has extended to its foreign
policy by encouraging institution building in the area of domestic gover-
nance. Yet, while Indonesia has since 1998 constituted a ‘different sort of
model of the transition from military to civilian rule, of openness and
pluralism’ (The Economist 2008), the extent to which Jakarta has suc-
ceeded in influencing the ASEAN institutional process and the other mem-
bers to adopt similar values is debatable. The resistance to change
emanating from the less democratic Southeast Asian states has been a
source of frustration for Indonesia. In response and in light of the country’s
recent rise on the world stage, some influential Indonesian analysts have
even called on Jakarta to adopt a higher profile in global affairs indepen-
dently from ASEAN and its Southeast Asian neighbors. For example,
Sukma (2009) has urged Indonesia to pay more attention to global affairs
and key bilateral relations and to ‘free itself from any undeserving obliga-
tion to follow the wishes of any state or a grouping of states, including
ASEAN, if by doing so we sacrifice our own national interest’.

Indonesia has felt entitled to a position of natural leadership in ASEAN
since its formation in August 1967. During the Suharto presidency
(1967 1998), Indonesia played a leading role in the Association and con-
tributed to stability and security in Southeast Asia. Indonesia’s status as a
de facto leader significantly diminished after the Asian financial crisis of
558 The Pacific Review

19976 98, however, leading to a loss in regional standing. The consequences

of the financial crisis and the collapse of the Suharto regime in May 1998
led to domestic unrest and severely reduced Indonesia’s role in regional
affairs. Still, Indonesia has again adopted a more active position in
ASEAN since the mid-2000s in tune with its own process of democratiza-
tion and economic expansion.
Indonesia’s foreign policy has since 1965 been characterized by self-
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restraint in an attempt to reassure its regional partners. Jakarta has at times

succeeded in fulfilling its managerial aspirations through accommodation,
consultation and persuasion. The adoption of benign diplomatic methods
has had a positive impact on the response of the neighboring countries and
contributed to a better acceptance of its leadership status. The other
ASEAN members have been willing to accept Indonesia’s position of lead-
ership in the regional grouping in exchange for its adoption of a non-
threatening and constrained foreign policy. Paradoxically, therefore, Indo-
nesia has managed to maintain its leading role in ASEAN by ‘punching
below its weight’ in the organization.
This paper has sought to go beyond the conventional wisdom about
Indonesia as a de facto leader of ASEAN by examining its leadership
record. It has done so by assessing the extent to which Indonesia has suc-
ceeded in exercising its leadership by systematically examining three condi-
tions, namely, its ability to offer international public goods in the security
and economic areas, to engage in conflict management in the Cambodian
conflict and the South China Sea disputes, and finally to promote institu-
tion building in ASEAN.
It can be concluded that Indonesia has exercised an incomplete and sec-
torial form of leadership that has been driven by a responsive approach to
regional events. In the security sphere, Indonesia has mostly responded to
developments that have undermined regional autonomy. While Indonesia
has succeeded in exercising nominal leadership in ASEAN, other members
have contested its preference for an autonomous regional order. Moreover,
the realization of its regional vision has been undermined by periods of
domestic instability. Hence, while contributing to it, Indonesia has not
been able on its own to provide as a public good a stable security environ-
ment. Its leadership role has also been limited to the political and security
spheres leaving economic cooperation to others. Its contribution to sus-
tained economic development in Southeast Asia has been minimal due to
its recurrent economic weakness.
As far as the two other aspects of leadership discussed in this paper,
Indonesia has contributed to conflict management through its sustained
diplomatic efforts, especially in the context of the Cambodian conflict and
the South China Sea disputes, and to institution building in ASEAN
through its diplomatic initiatives and leadership role at key summits. On
conflict management, for example, ASEAN’s unity on the South China
Sea consists of the six principles negotiated by Natalegawa in July 2012.
On institution building, the hosting of the ASEAN Secretariat as well as
R. Emmers: Indonesia’s Role in ASEAN 559

the importance of the 1976 and 2003 Bali Summits that led respectively to
the adoption of the TAC and the APSC proposal have also been discussed.
Moreover, as an extension of its domestic politics, Indonesia has in
recent years encouraged institution building in ASEAN to promote
democracy and the respect for human rights in Southeast Asia. The less
democratic member states have contested the Indonesian focus on domes-
tic governance, however. Its democratic system has been criticized in some
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Southeast Asian countries as being too unstable and incapable of address-

ing a series of domestic problems. As a result, similar to its preference for
an autonomous regional order, Indonesia’s enthusiasm for institutional
mechanisms meant to enhance a domestic form of domestic governance is
far from being shared unanimously by all the other member states.
It is too soon to say whether the successful transition to democracy and
the strengthening of the domestic economy will enable Indonesia to play a
greater leadership role in ASEAN in the years to come. It is undeniable,
however, that robust economic growth, a more stable domestic environ-
ment and its democratic political system have all contributed to strengthen
Indonesia’s international image. The country’s ability to lead ASEAN will
continue to depend on its own domestic resilience, especially in terms of
preserving political stability and achieving long-term economic develop-
ment. Even if all of this is achieved, it is uncertain whether Indonesia’s
preference for an autonomous regional order and a democratic form of
domestic governance will ultimately convince the other member states to
adopt a similar security outlook and set of domestic values. Alternatively,
a more confident Indonesia may decide to no longer regard ASEAN as the
cornerstone of its foreign policy and focus instead on a series of key bilat-
eral relations and on the adoption of a higher profile in global affairs.

This paper was first presented at the Workshop on ‘Regional leadership,
norms and diversity: Comparing the Asia-Pacific with Europe’, organized
by Waseda University and funded by the Global Re-ordering: Evolution
through European Networks (GR:EEN), Tokyo, January 2013.

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and the Philippines. Brunei joined ASEAN in 1986, Vietnam in 1995, Laos and
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