TCS Daily

ASEAN Restlessness

By Yang Razali Kassim - April 20, 2005 12:00 AM

This has been a rough first quarter for ASEAN. Following the devastating tsunami on the eve of the new year, the first few months of 2005 have seen new challenges confronting the regional grouping. The ten ASEAN members are currently bracing for a possible diplomatic crisis should Myanmar's chairmanship next year cause the region's Western partners to boycott the 2006 ASEAN meeting. Earlier, on the bilateral front, Thailand and Malaysia had their ties ruffled by a public spat following accusations by Bangkok that Kuala Lumpur was supporting southern Thai separatists -- charges the Malaysians denied. Differences have also emerged between two other ASEAN members when Indonesia alleged that Singapore had dumped "hazardous waste" in Batam - an allegation which Singapore has dismissed.

But a more critical issue is the territorial dispute which erupted in March between Indonesia and Malaysia when Malaysia granted a contract for oil and gas exploration in a part of the Sulawesi Sea. The dispute is serious because it almost led to an armed conflict amid loose talk of war. Thankfully, the problem is showing signs of easing as the two sides seek a diplomatic solution to the standoff. The episode has exposed the inherent fragility within ASEAN of the bilateral relationships among its member states. After all, Indonesia and Malaysia are supposed to be very close given the many things they share in common such as culture, language and religion.

Territorial Dispute

The current tension between Indonesia and Malaysia over the oil and gas-rich waters in the Sulawesi Sea east of Sabah, known as the Ambalat block, began innocently enough with Petronas awarding contracts to explore oil and gas to its subsidiary, Petronas Carigali, and the Anglo-Dutch oil giant, Shell. What it did not bargain for was the swift reaction from Indonesia which claimed Ambalat to be its territory and that Petronas, therefore, had violated Indonesian sovereignty. Malaysia objected to the Indonesian assertion and insisted that Ambalat is within its jurisdiction following Kuala Lumpur's successful claim of ownership of the nearby islands of Sipadan and Ligitan at the International Court of Justice in 2002. The whole incident deteriorated rapidly as the conflicting claims snowballed into a near-crisis. Both countries came close to the brink of an armed clash, with Jakarta deploying its warships and jetfighters to assert its sovereignty over the disputed waters.

Konfrontasi II?

In the heat of it all, it was unfortunate that the term "Konfrontasi II" was used in the Indonesian media to refer to the Ambalat dispute. The resort to such historical imagery is ironic because the Confrontation of the 1960s was more an act of Indonesian aggression led by the then president Sukarno to "Ganyang Malaysia". Sukarno wanted to "ganyang" or crush the newly-formed federation of Malaysia in 1963 -- which then included Singapore -- because he saw it as a neo-colonialist British plot to surround Indonesia. Regardless of the loose usage of such emotive language, it does underscore how upset the Indonesians have been over this latest development in the Sulawesi Sea.

Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur have sensibly pulled back from the edge in favour of an amicable solution. How should we read Jakarta's response in recent months towards external developments that it sees as affecting its interests?

Creeping Sense of Vulnerability

There are signs that Indonesia in the Yudhoyono era is going through a new sense of vulnerability. Indonesians feel a certain inadequacy following the difficulties of the last seven years since the Asian financial crisis and the subsequent fall of Suharto. Even nature, it seems, is not on their side. After the tsunami, the earthquake of March 28 which devastated Nias island seems to suggest that the pressures on Indonesia are never-ending. Under the circumstances, Indonesians can be hyper-sensitive to any moves they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as taking advantage of their current weakness. "Indonesia at the moment is very weak, especially with the threat of national disintegration hanging over it," wrote analyst Sudjati Djiwandono in The Jakarta Post.

As this is a phase in which the Indonesian elite and public take exception easily, they respond robustly to the most innocent of incidents if these are perceived as affronts. The Malaysian repatriation of illegal Indonesian workers has been received in this way in Jakarta, whether or not Kuala Lumpur's action is seen as justified.

But the most crucial factor behind Indonesia's current sense of vulnerability is its loss of territory in recent times. After the separation of East Timor, Jakarta lost ownership of Sipadan and Ligitan to Malaysia. When foreign troops landed in Aceh for post-tsunami humanitarian work in December, it raised alarm bells in Jakarta of a possible take-over of that province by foreign forces -- baseless as it turned out to be.

What ASEAN must do

Some Indonesian analysts have noted how ASEAN has been absent as an institution throughout this troubled period. There has not been any significant effort from ASEAN to help defuse the tension, they said. At the height of the Ambalat dispute, some Indonesian legislators even called for the disbanding of ASEAN. This is surely an extreme position to take. Why disband ASEAN just because Indonesia, the group's largest member, is embroiled in bilateral disputes with its neighbours? It was Indonesia which paved the way for the creation of ASEAN in 1967 soon after the end of Konfrontasi in 1965.

The diplomatic disputes that have emerged this year are yet another test for ASEAN solidarity -- and for the new generation of ASEAN leaders who have just taken over. When these new leaders - President Yudhoyono, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi - entered the scene last year, they immediately reached out to each other to rebuild the ASEAN camaraderie which dissipated after the 1997 regional financial crisis. PM Lee and PM Abdullah attended Dr Yudhoyono's presidential swearing-in on October 20 in Jakarta. When the tsunami struck Aceh, both prime ministers mobilised assistance for Indonesia. The spirit of group solidarity that the new generation of leaders is trying to forge must not be sacrificed by the current difficulties. As Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are at the core of ASEAN, their relationships will continue to set the tone of the grouping as a whole.

The author is Senior Fellow with the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University.


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