Indonesia as ASEAN Chair 2023: The Dilemmas


Indonesia picks up the theme “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth”. President Joko Widodo stated that: “ASEAN needs to be stable and peace, an epicentrum for global stability. ASEAN also needs to be consistent in enforcing international law and avoid being proxy to anyone. ASEAN needs to be a region of dignity that upholds high humanity and democracy”. Dinna Prapto Raharja, former Indonesian Representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, explores the challenges Indonesia faces as Chair of ASEAN in 2023.

2021 special
Teaser Image Caption
President Joko Widodo of Indonesia sits next to Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia at ASEAN Leaders Meeting 2021

ASEAN 2023 Logo
ASEAN 2023 Logo

Indonesia has a history of proactive engagement with ASEAN. More than that, Indonesia is known for its inspiring approaches that could reduce the chance of deadlocks in ASEAN. For instance, knowing that many countries often resort to the non-interference argument, Indonesia worked up the idea on having an ASEAN Community where ASEAN is not just about achieving economic growth, which may consequently leave some members behind, but also caring about gaps in economic development. This means discussing solutions for political-security and socio-cultural challenges countries are faced with along the growth such as transnational crimes, geopolitical challenges, human rights, and the issues of marginalized groups.

Carefully crafted to win the hearts of ASEAN Member States, we then saw the birth of Bali Declaration II with the three pillars of ASEAN: political security, economic, and socio-cultural pillars. Next, knowing that most ASEAN Member States were skeptical about sharing their views on political security matters, arguing that it is a sensitive domestic matter, Indonesia voluntarily shared how the government responded to problems in Aceh and Timor Leste. Indonesia also invites non-government figures to represent Indonesia in the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights instead of avoiding talks with activists. Indonesia gave the examples that sharing and having dialogues with the members of the Community is a way to go in ASEAN.

The ASEAN 2023 theme suggests that Indonesia is confident in leading dialogues and actions on economic growth as much as it is on political and security issues. In the past, economic issues are known to be the theme chosen by the smaller countries with less open politics and yet fast-growing economies. Indonesia’s success in navigating the G20 meetings namely keeping the G20 intact despite the war in Ukraine and issuing a joint statement at the G20 Summit despite deep divides among members, have boosted President Joko Widodo’s passion to continue pushing the economic agendas from the G20 to ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific. But would this focus work?

ASEAN Jokowi
Indonesia as ASEAN Chair 2023

Challenges for ASEAN 2023

The dire prospect of peace in Ukraine and the high inflation due to the rising price of food and energy sent notes of caution across the world, including to ASEAN economies. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projected that about 90 percent of advanced economies will see a decline in growth in 2023 while the major engines for growth would be China and India. Consequently, emerging and developing economies are expected to improve resilience and remove key growth constraints. Key initiatives in this pillar are the development of micro, small, and medium enterprises, and the promotion of ASEAN Integration among the developing members of ASEAN to move forward in a unified manner. Indonesia’s Chair of Senior Official Meetings revealed that the goal for bringing up ASEAN as “epicentrum of growth” is to bring more respect for Southeast Asia countries and to play a bigger role on the global stage, to reaffirm its bargaining position and recover fully from the COVID-19 pandemic. From this angle, Indonesia’s choice of theme is timely to secure ASEAN’s place in the global arena.

Geopolitical Tensions

However, Indonesia’s economic vision for ASEAN may face dilemmas caused by the tensions between the greater powers, China, the US and India. Engaging these three countries into a productive negotiation despite their economic frictions leads to diverging bilateral preferences from ASEAN Member States. As we know some ASEAN Member States are quite dependent economically the US or China, and mostly do not want to invoke political security problems with neither the US, China, nor India.

China is ASEAN’s largest trading partners since 2009 and by 2020; the total value of trade in goods between China and ASEAN has accounted a quarter of ASEAN’s foreign trade. In terms of investment, China’s FDI flow to the region accounts for 6.7% of the total FDI absorbed by ASEAN and this supports manufacturing, financial and insurance, wholesale, and retail as well as construction across ASEAN.[1]

Retno Marsudi
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi

South China Sea

The tensions around the South China Sea is one example where economic dependence and security issues create dilemmas. Indonesia wants to make sure that its territorial integrity around the Natuna Islands is respected not only for political security, but also for the areas’ wealth in natural resources. China, on the other hand, has not budged from its nine-dash line claim, now asserting control to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea[2]. If Indonesia only resorts to issuing an ASEAN Leaders’ Statements or Declarations on the matter, it would be seen as another sign of a weak ASEAN. In Indonesia’s statement from the 32nd ASEAN Coordinating Council Meeting and the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat, issued on February 4, 2023, is suggesting that there is yet a new strategy to speed up the negotiations on the Code of Conduct. It says that the physical textual negotiation will start in March 2023 and the ASEAN Member States acknowledged the need for new approaches.  


Two years after the coup, the situation in Myanmar is an issue too big to hide under the economic focus. At the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in February a follow-up on the Five-Point Consensus, the legitimacy of Myanmar’s representation in attending ASEAN meetings, and the next steps for the Special Envoy were expected to be addressed, but the output was a statement about creating a conducive environment for an inclusive dialogue. All while it seems obvious that the Five-Point Consensus has failed to curb violence and destabilization of Myanmar.

What can Indonesia do? Ideally, as a chair Indonesia could tap into its strength in having good bilateral relations with Myanmar and the neighboring countries to explore political solutions. Thus, not to solely rely on the ASEAN mechanisms. The dilemma here is to balance ASEAN’s approach and Indonesia’s approach. Will Indonesia have the courage to offer models of nation building for Myanmar to curb violence and destabilization? Given that Myanmar has been a graveyard for any Special Envoy, this year a new approach is needed. The clock is ticking. Humanitarian agencies face difficulties in protecting themselves and their logistics when penetrating Myanmar. Each humanitarian group must generate their own local contacts. The areas controlled by the Myanmar military junta shrunk since the coup but the size of territorial control of the alternative groups are not decisive enough to gain legitimacy over people in the entire country. Yet, the military junta continues to claim legitimacy over Myanmar, approaching groups for support for the general election despite rejection from the Myanmar public. Indonesia’s intent to re-enact the plan to facilitate the voluntary return of the displaced people of Rakhine back to Myanmar is premature under such unstable political condition.

Jokowi ASSK
Former State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in a talk with President Joko Widodo in 2019 before 2021 Myanmar coup d'état.


Hard to say how Indonesia would manage the discussed challenges and tensions. We may look at how Indonesia conducted various quiet shuttle diplomacy to find politically acceptable solutions on the South China Sea, on Cambodia-Thailand conflict over the Preah Vihear Temple, on the Initiative for ASEAN Integration, and more. Engagements with civil society groups used to be livelier than today too.

There is hope that at some point we would feel the fresh air. After all, Indonesia is known for being brave to discuss sensitive issues. Though not ideal, President Joko Widodo recently acknowledged that there were gross violations of human rights in twelve (12) cases in Indonesia since 1965. President Widodo shared regrets for what happened and promised remedy to the victims. As Indonesia’s Former Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa once said in his book Does ASEAN Matter? (2018), Indonesia has the view that “the risk of inaction far outweighed the risk of policy failure”. We hope the same principle holds today.  


Dr. Dinna Prapto Raharja is an Associate Professor in International Relations at Binus University and the Founder of Synergy Policies. She holds Doctor of Philosophy and Master of Arts from the Department of Political Science, The Ohio State University, US with major in comparative politics and minor in international political economy.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung