In her visit to Asia this week, including her trip to Jakarta on Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has not only highlighted the renewed American focus on Southeast Asia, especially regarding the South China Sea, but also highlighted the rising importance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), by visiting the organization’s headquarters, or secretariat, in Jakarta. At a bilateral meeting with ASEAN’s secretary-general, Clinton remarked, “We [the United States] have an interest in strengthening ASEAN’s ability to address regional challenges in an effective, comprehensive way.”
When I speak of ASEAN, and the United States’ renewed interest, I do not necessarily mean the countries that encompass ASEAN, the ten nations in Southeast Asia. Washington has a renewed interest in the actual organization itself, and more clearly sees how ASEAN could play a larger role in managing regional integration. Compared to other regional organizations, not only in Europe but also in Africa and Latin America, ASEAN remains badly understaffed, with little ability to do its own independent research and analysis, and headed by a figure who, although sometimes capable (as in the current case), is given minimal powers and cannot compete on the global stage with leaders from the Southeast Asian nations themselves. The current ASEAN head, former Thai foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan, does not even attract the global attention that Singapore’s finance minister does, let alone the leaders of nations like Singapore and Indonesia.
But Secretary Clinton, or other American, Japanese, or Australian officials pushing and prodding ASEAN to develop a stronger organization, is likely to have little impact. The organization was designed to be relatively weak, by powerful, often autocratic leaders of the original ASEAN member states, who were highly reluctant to cede any ground to a regional organization. Today, however, many ASEAN leaders themselves are starting to realize that, for the organization to pull its weight in regional affairs, and to effectively defend members’ interests on critical issues like the South China Sea, ASEAN will require both greater unity and a more substantial Secretariat, led by a high-profile figure who can command world attention (say, former Singapore prime minister Goh Chok Tong, or former Thai prime minister Anand Panyarachun). This more recognized secretary-general should then be given greater control of regional fiscal, security, and diplomatic affairs. The current ASEAN secretary-general, Surin, has long been known as a reformer pushing for a stronger secretariat. Following the collapse of the ASEAN meeting in Cambodia earlier this year, Surin admitted that ASEAN was failing and the organization needed to be stronger, with a stronger secretariat. For years, his voice was a relatively lonely one, echoed only by a few academics, and not by most of the leaders from critical ASEAN members like Singapore and Indonesia.
Now, that dynamic has begun to shift. Many leaders in Indonesia and Singapore, the two most important ASEAN members, have started to see the downside of a weak secretariat. For these nations, one option in the face of a weak secretariat would be simply to engage with other world powers bilaterally, or through other organizations like the G-20 or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a temptation both Indonesia and Singapore have indulged in. Yet as Indonesian diplomats have worked hard over the past three months to paper over ASEAN’s splits, and to move ASEAN nations toward a more effective common position on the South China Sea, Jakarta has increasingly realized that, instead of simply opting out of ASEAN, it can get what it wants —regional leadership— while also boosting a stronger secretariat. More than anything Secretary Clinton says, it is the decisions of the Indonesian leadership that will matter most.