Commentary 2016/14, 10 May 2016
The political ascensions to the summits of power of the presumptive president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, and first-term Indonesian president Joko Widodo are very similar in their disinterest in foreign policy in general and in ASEAN in particular.
Jokowi and Duterte are political outsiders who have garnered fervent nationwide support due to their successful can-do periods as mayors of peripheral cities in their diverse and vast archipelagic countries. Both came to national prominence without the backing of a major national party. They are bottom-up, anti-establishment candidates looked down upon by the long-established political, business, and policy elites of their respective hegemonic national capitals. Both have minimal international experience and none in the patient etiquette of regional diplomacy.
It is very likely that Duterte’s approach (or lack of it) to foreign policy and to ASEAN will be similar to that of Jokowi. Under the Jokowi administration, Indonesian foreign policy has become more nationalistic and unilateral, heavily focused on supporting the administration’s domestic infrastructure and nation-building agenda, less wed to the importance of ASEAN, and more impatient with ASEAN process and protocol.
Japan and China are major providers of infrastructure funding and the U.S. is the largest foreign direct investor in Southeast Asia. Jokowi has personally courted all three and played them off each other. ASEAN has no money to invest and cannot build anything in Indonesia. Duterte’s campaign rhetoric on foreign policy has also focused on gaining more foreign funds for his nation-building infrastructure plans and silent on ASEAN.
Indonesia and the Philippines are Southeast Asia’s two largest countries, accounting for well over half of the region’s total population. They are the region’s two most dynamic and robust democracies, regularly and peacefully transferring power between competing parties. It is not a good sign for the future of ASEAN unity and centrality when the new-style leaders of both of these Southeast Asian giants show little interest in or understanding of ASEAN when ASEAN has declared itself a Community and the Philippines is to host the regional organization’s 50th anniversary.
The emergence of Jokowi and Duterte as vanguards of the next generation of anti-elitist democratic leaders will pose a significant challenge to ASEAN unity and centrality and its community-building aspirations.
Dr Malcolm Cook is a Senior Fellow, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
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