What can we in Asia expect from a Hillary Clinton Presidency?–A Point of View


November 7, 2016

What can we in Asia expect from a Hillary Clinton Presidency?–A Point of View

by T J Pempel, University of California, Berkeley

By mid-afternoon on Wednesday 9 November 2016, Asians will be temporarily unified by their collective sigh of relief. Early US election results will be announcing their reprieve from four years of torment under a Trump presidency. With less than two weeks until election day, the United States’ six major polling models range in their predictions of the likelihood of a Clinton presidency between 85 and 97 per cent. FBI Director James Comey’s 28 October precedent-breaking announcement that new emails had been discovered rewrote the scripts of both campaigns but subsequent polls suggested that few presidential votes would shift as a result. Short of a zombie invasion or some equivalent deus ex machina, Hillary’s presidency is all but guaranteed.

 Image result for President-Elect Hillary Clinton

 The Most Likely Outc0me on November 8, 2016

Her victory will provide two valuable reassurances. First, continuity is likely. As Secretary of State, Clinton was a major contributor to Obama’s Asia policy, including the ‘rebalance’ to Asia. Second, her current Asia policy team is stacked with a deep bench of individuals sharing extensive experience and familiarity with all aspects of East Asia.

This will not be an administration that is fomenting trade or currency wars, reducing alliances to their economic transaction costs or encouraging Japan and South Korea to develop autonomous nuclear programs — as promised by Trump. Obama’s Asia policies have their critics, and expertise by no means guarantees compatibility. But ‘slow and steady’ policies under adult supervision will be far more regionally welcome than the alternative.

Clinton more hawkish than Barack Obama

Though a Clinton presidency will mean continuity, her past suggests that she is also more prone than Obama to employ military force. As one interviewer observed, she prefers the ‘nail eating, swamp-crawling’ military officers to diplomats wearing uniforms.

This is likely to generate more robust challenges by the United States towards North Korea and a greater willingness to employ the Seventh Fleet as a check on maritime assertiveness. It may also make Clinton reluctant to change plans for the highly controversial Marine Corps base repositioning within Okinawa, despite massive Okinawan opposition to the relocation. And it may influence her handling of complex alliance relations like those with Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines or the generals running Thailand.

Equally significant, however, Clinton devours her briefing books and is adept at combining tactical manoeuvring with attention to her long-term agenda. She will be willing to exchange tit-for-tat on specific provocations while bolstering existing alliances and building on tentative cooperation with China in areas such as climate change, piracy and the Iran nuclear deal.

But any abstract commitment by the Clinton administration to prioritise Asia will confront at least three huge hurdles.

TPPA ?–Go or No Go–Tussle with Congress

First, instability and warfare in the Middle East will continue to devour disproportionate amounts of policy making bandwidth. Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iran, not to mention Israeli–Palestinian relations, will remain gargantuan Middle Eastern sand dunes that impede the footsteps and obscure the vision of any moves toward Asia.Image result for TPPA

Second, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), key to Obama’s efforts to engage and structure Asia-Pacific trade and investment, is dead for the foreseeable future. Mitch McConnell, Republican Majority Leader of the US Senate, has declared that the Senate will not consider the TPP during the November–January ‘lame duck’ session, continuing his adamant obstruction of every Obama initiative. His refusal also closes an otherwise convenient back door by which Hillary could have benefited from the TPP’s ratification without reversing her campaign trail promises.

Those promises plus the looming political exigencies of the 2018 Congressional elections work against her bringing the TPP forward in her first two years, regardless of the pleadings of the other eleven signatories or the TPP’s potential benefit to United States’ economic engagement with Asia.

Mending Party and cultural divisions in the US

This feeds into the third impediment. Even with a big Electoral College win, Clinton will enjoy no honeymoon. Party and cultural divisions in the United States have taken on tribal exclusivity. Clinton is not likely to see more than a one to three seat Democratic majority in the Senate at most, while to capture a House majority, Democrats must gain 30 seats from at most 35 vulnerable Republican-held seats, an always tough task made harder by the Comey announcement which has remobilised dispirited Republicans now anxious to ensure a Congressional check on a Clinton presidency.

Clinton’s skills in negotiating across the partisan aisle are justifiably touted as superior to Obama’s, and Asia policies are not inherently partisan triggers. But incentives still remain high for Republicans to sustain a united wall of opposition. Senate elections in 2018 are likely to return a Republican majority while in the House, a fractious Republican caucus and House Speaker Paul Ryan whose long run presidential ambitions will circumscribe any incentive he might have to ‘sell out’ by cooperating with Clinton.

House Republicans are already promising that if they retain even the slimmest majority they will begin an endless cycle of well-publicised investigations of Clinton and even potential impeachment hearings before she unpacks in the White House. And public scepticism about a Clinton victory remains high among Republican voters. An NBC/SurveyMonkey poll released on 20 October found that a full 45 per cent of Republicans definitely wouldn’t or are unlikely to accept the results of the election if their candidate lost.

A Meaningless Asia Policy without Economic and Financial Engagement

Any collective post-election relief Asians might feel is likely to be short-lived in the face of the prioritisation of non-Asian issues on the US agenda, an Asia policy devoid of economic and financial engagement and the clown show that passes for the US Congress. But relief may be in sight; candidates are already gearing up for the 2020 presidential elections.

T J Pempel is Jack M Forcey Professor of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley.

What can Asia expect under Hillary’s presidency?

 

A Trump Presidency possible: Preparing for Donald J. Trump


September 24, 2016

A Trump Presidency possible: Preparing for Donald J. Trump

Embassies that once assumed Clinton would win struggle to know what to expect from her rival

Image result for donald trump the next president of the united states

The End of Obama’s Neo-Liberalism–It was good while it lasted

Donald Trump’s September surge in the polls has set off alarm bells in capitals across Europe and Asia that are ill-prepared for a Republican victory in November.

Although he was barely present in New York this week as world leaders descended on the UN, the Republican candidate was a constant theme of conversation on the sidelines of this year’s General Assembly.

“Everyone is freaking out that he might actually win,” said one senior European official in New York this week. “It would make Brexit seem easy to deal with.”

Many governments in Europe, Asia and Latin America have been openly critical of some of Mr Trump’s foreign policy positions, with French president François Hollande going so far as to say last month that the Republican nominee “makes you want to retch”.

However, until recently they were working under the assumption that Hillary Clinton would win comfortably in the autumn. Now, with Mrs Clinton holding a lead of little over two points in the polls, they suddenly find themselves having to adjust to a very different election, where a Trump victory is at least a possibility.

“Until recently, the main question we were asking was what sort of impact the election rhetoric would have on a Clinton administration, in terms of trade deals, military intervention and so on. But the polls are telling us we have to at least seriously entertain the idea that he has a chance to win,” said one Australian official.

Image result for Can we trust Hillary Clinton

My Answer: Why not? She is no different from Mr Trump. It’s Politics–Din Merican

If Mr Trump’s views on Russia have been the most controversial aspect of his foreign policy approach in the US, in Europe and Asia it is his scathing criticism of traditional alliances that has garnered the most attention. At various stages in the campaign, the Republican candidate has suggested the US might not defend NATO allies and has said Washington should spend much less on defending Japan and South Korea.

Diplomats in Washington say that in the run-up to the Republican convention in July, representatives from the Trump campaign, including co-chairman Sam Clovis and then campaign manager Paul Manafort, told them that Mr Trump’s statements about America’s allies were less policy proposals and more opening statements in a negotiation.

In recent weeks, however, embassies in Washington have been receiving instructions to get a more precise understanding of the priorities of a Trump White House and who would be the senior officials in the administration.

“We have been told we need much more detailed planning about what a Trump administration would mean, the specific policies we should expect and who the key players would be,” said one Asian official. “But even at this stage, this is almost impossible to say.”

One of the complications in this election for foreign governments has been the rift between Mr Trump and large parts of the Republican foreign policy establishment, a section of which is openly supporting Hillary Clinton. Most of the small group of foreign policy advisers currently working with Mr Trump are much less well-known, giving diplomats in Washington little insight into the campaign’s thinking.

Mr Trump did receive some praise from the one leader who he met this week in New York, Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who said the Republican candidate would “no doubt” make a strong leader. Asked about Mr Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, Mr al-Sisi said that “during election campaigns many statements are made and many things are said; however, afterwards, governing the country would be something different.”

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned on Tuesday about the consequences of the US pulling back from its global role in ways that Mr Trump has often proposed.

“Can you imagine the soccer game where the referee decides to go back in the changing room? The first few moments, everyone says that’s great, and they’re away. After a time, it’s chaos,” Mr Blair told a Reuters event in New York. He added that Mrs Clinton was someone of “enormous wisdom, common sense and integrity.”

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang took the diplomatic route. “No matter who gets elected, I believe China-US ties will grow steadily and in a positive direction,” he told the Economic Club of New York.

Indonesian Islam: Neither White Knight nor Damsel in Distress


September 22, 2016

Asia Pacific Bulletin

Number 354 | September 22, 2016

ANALYSIS

Indonesian Islam: Neither White Knight nor Damsel in Distress

by Benjamin Nathan

In the fifteen years since 9/11, the attitude of the American media and foreign policy community towards Indonesian Islam has followed two parallel paths. The first is that Muslims in Indonesia have the potential to influence the thoughts and actions of Islamic extremists in the Middle East. The reasoning behind this viewpoint is easy to see: Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population, an overwhelming majorityof whom reject acts of religious violence. American policymakers from both parties naturally see this state of affairs as a useful diplomatic tool for combating extremism in the Middle East.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Paul Wolfowitz echoed this theme in 2009, writing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled “Indonesia Is a Model Muslim Democracy” that “if [Indonesia] continues to make progress on religious tolerance, it can point the way for other majority Muslim countries.” In November 2015, The New York Times described a recent anti-ISIS media campaign led by the Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) as a “welcome antidote to jihadism” and as a solution to the problem that “Western leaders often lack credibility with those most susceptible to jihad’s allure.”

The second path of American thinking about Indonesian Islam is that Islamic extremists in the Middle East have the potential to influence the thoughts and actions of Muslims in Indonesia. This is an idea of Indonesia as a teetering domino, a fortress of religious moderation under internal siege from a worldwide pox of Islamic fundamentalism. In this view, the fact that 90% of Indonesians are Muslims makes the country vulnerable to radicalization, moderate as Indonesia’s mainstream form of Islam may be. In its 2016 budget, the State Department listed Indonesia as a “focus country” for its Antiterrorism Assistance and Countering Violent Extremism programs. The United States provides financial and technical support for Detachment 88, Indonesia’s most prominent antiterror group, and also funds organizations deemed capable of “grass-roots counter-messaging” against extremism.

These twin perspectives assume the potential for widespread, persuasive communication between Indonesian Muslims and their coreligionists around the world. This assumption is largely off base. Chief among its flaws is that cultural and religious disparities between Indonesia and the Middle East, while impossible to measure precisely, are stark.Indonesians speak not Arabic but Malay, an Austronesian language whose resemblance to Arabic consists only of a scattershot of shared vocabulary. Indonesian Muslims generally make a point of distinguishing themselves from inhabitants of the Arab world. The Indonesian term kearab-araban, roughly equivalent to “over-Arabness,” is not a term of respect.

Even if they could easily communicate with other Muslims around the world, Indonesians would have few opportunities to do so. Indonesians are simply not well-placed around the globe to influence the ideological tide of worldwide Islam. Indonesia’s diaspora, aside from those who live in neighboring Malaysia, is small relative to population size. Of the Indonesians who travel to the Middle East, most are female domestic workers. The Saudi government caps the number of Indonesians allowed to attend the annual Hajj pilgrimage at 168,800 per year –just .08% of the country’s Muslim population.

And even if it were conceivable that Indonesian anti-extremist rhetoric could dissuade Muslims around the world from joining groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, it would still be misleading to claim that organized Islam in Indonesia is an outstanding example of peace and tolerance that transcends historically-bound political conditions. The New York Timesarticle that called attention to Nahdlatul Ulama’s anti-ISIS efforts made no mention of the fact that the group played a central role in the murder of hundreds of thousands of suspected communists from 1965 to 1966. Its popular reputation as a moderate organization that “stresses nonviolence, inclusiveness and acceptance of other religions” is the result of an astonishingly narrow focus on the present day.

The reason why Nahdlatul Ulama and similar organizations no longer coordinate mass violence is that their institutional legitimacy is now secure-they face no challenge to their influence that compares to the threat they once faced from organized communism. Their professed tolerance is a result of political stability, not a cause. The historical record on this point is clear: when immersed in the power struggle of the 1960s, NU proved just as susceptible to the temptations of political violence as the extremist groups its leaders denounce today. It is therefore hard to imagine how Indonesia’s present-day brand of tolerance could take hold in such politically unstable regions as Syria and Nigeria.

The same factors that limit the usefulness of Indonesian Islam as a counterweight to extremist groups in the Middle East apply with equal strength to attempts by extremist groups in the Middle East to make inroads in Indonesia. The wide political and cultural reach of groups like NU and Muhammadiyah have provided resistance against the ideological incursions of Salafi proselytizers and the recruitment efforts of the Islamic State. Even as mainstream Indonesian Islam grows more conservative in areas like LGBT rights and inter-religious tolerance, its institutions constrain foreign radicalization.

ISIS, for its part, seems both unable and unwilling to carry out major terrorist attacks in Indonesia. In a January 2016 report for USAID, political scientist Greg Fealy estimated that only 250 to 300 Indonesian citizens-roughly one for every million-have traveled to join ISIS. Neighboring Australia’s per capita rate is five times as high. While the attacks that killed four people in Jakarta on January 14 were widely interpreted as a sign that ISIS had expanded its focus to Indonesia, evidence suggests that central ISIS leadership in Iraq and Syria did not have a planning role. The attack was an amateurish and homegrown operation with no proven connection to ISIS beyond hazy funding links and an impossible-to-disprove link of ‘inspiration.”

Indonesia today faces issues that dwarf the threat of terrorism in their scope and significance, such as the economy and institutional political weaknesses. According to the Global Terrorism Index, Indonesia would not match Nigeria’s 2014 casualty count from terrorism if an equivalent to January’s Jakarta attack occurred five times a day for an entire year. The US foreign policy community should not let the strategic priority of preventing the spread of terrorism distort their view of Indonesia’s own pressing needs. A strong Indonesia, after all, fits well within the policy interests of the United States. The world’s fourth-most populous country is an important economic and strategic partner, not least because of China’s increasing ambitions to establish its influence in Southeast Asia.

There is a risk, moreover, that funding local counter-terrorism efforts will incur more than just an opportunity cost. The Indonesian military, sidelined since Suharto’s downfall in 1998, views access to counter-terrorism funding as a potential wedge for reestablishing its influence in national politics. A remilitarization of Indonesian society would surely damage the country’s young democratic institutions. It could also thwart key American policy goals like the protection of religious freedom and human rights. The military has recently been involved in programs like bela negara (“defend the nation”), a training program for lay citizens that aims to target such social ills as latent communism and homosexuality. If American policymakers insist on enlisting Indonesia in the fight against terrorism, they must take care to avoid treatments that cause more harm than the targeted disease.

About the Author

Benjamin Nathan is a former researcher at the East-West Center in Washington. He graduated from Williams College in 2015 and is an alumnus of the Critical Language Scholarship program in Malang, Indonesia. He can be contacted at bnathan19@gmail.com.
 
The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.

 

Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.

APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington
APB Series Coordinator: Alex Forster, Project Assistant, East-West Center in Washington

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the East-West Center or any organization with which the author is affiliated.

For comments/responses on APB issues or article submissions, please contactwashington@eastwestcenter.org.

East-West Center | 1601 East-West Road | Honolulu, HI | 808.944.7111

East-West Center in Washington | 1819 L Street, NW, Suite 600 | Washington, DC | 202.293.3995

MCA, UMNO lapdog, flexes its muscles to no avail


September 17, 2016

Cowardice rightly understood begins with selfishness and ends with shame.”- José Rizal, ‘Noli Me Tángere

The spat between the MCA’s Ti Lian Ker and UMNO’s Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz is not about the disparity of power between the component parties of BN but rather the continuing existential crisis of the MCA that it has been unable to overcome since losing the support of the Chinese community.

MCA, UMNO  lapdog, flexes its muscles to no avail

by Cmdr S, Thayaparan

Whereas the MIC has accepted its role as the water boy to UMNO, MCA desperately attempts relevance in a turbulent time of ‘Melayu’ political upheaval.

There has always been a disparity of power within Barisan Nasional (BN). However, parity of power was never the currency between the MCA plutocrats and UMNO potentates who shaped the national agenda and serviced the gravy train that enabled this country to remain in relative functionality for decades.

These schemers were aided by a polity willing to subscribe to the so-called social contract, as long as the people could pursue their economic agendas and live in relative harmony.

Ti’s contention that BN playing the ‘jaguh kampung’ (village champion) was causing BN to lose cosmopolitan votes is the kind of pussy-footing that that seems to be the only stratagems that the MCA these days is capable of coming up with.

I hope Pakatan supporters are not naïve enough to think that there is no nexus of connections between MCA plutocrats and DAP operatives working together for mutual benefit, which goes far beyond political profit. The same applies to UMNO and its so-called political enemies.

First off, BN is not playing the ‘jaguh kampung’, UMNO is in a ‘fight to the death’ struggle with Najib refuseniks and is attempting to keep their rural voting bases safe from the clutches of a newly revitalised Malay power group. The reality is that the rural demographic in the Peninsula and UMNO’s vote banks in Sabah and Sarawak are holding BN together, and this is because of UMNO and not because of BN.

The reality is that, unofficially, UMNO has given up on urban voters and it is the responsibility of MCA to shore up support and make the case for UMNO and not BN. I am sure the  outspoken MCA operative is aware that there are many UMNO-elected officials who do not support Najib but are only interested in their political survival that translates to UMNO’s survival.

After getting a spanking from Nazri, like a chastised child the MCA central committee member claims, “Now that the ultra-Malays who destroyed Tunku Abdul Rahman’s Alliance are out of BN and in Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), BN leadership must seize this opportunity to navigate BN to its rightful 1Malaysia course or the spirit of the Alliance’s founding years of Tunku Abdul Rahman,” which is again horse manure disguised as a mea culpa.

The thing that’s destroying MCA

The contradiction is obvious. First, Ti claims that UMNO’s continued use of Malay nationalism for the support of rural voters is destroying BN’s chances in the urban areas, and then he paradoxically claims that with the ejection of so-called “ultra-Malays” from the parties – the very ones who reject the Najib regime – things could get back to normal.

Image result for UMNO is controlled by Malay Ultras

The problem is that the so-called ultra-Malays are the ones in charge of UMNO now. Moreover, I do not mean people like Nazri (photo above ) who has had run-ins with the ultra-Malay component of UMNO, but would rather be attacking the Najib refuseniks than trading shots with a so-called “partner”.

This is the problem with throwing in with UMNO, the very basis of power-sharing is based on communal preoccupations that either conflict with each other or are manipulated to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

If you want to survive in the game, then you have to spin the racists’ rhetorics for your partners but most importantly, have the support of the community you claim to represent. This is why Nazri has it both ways. This is why he gets to play the realpolitik card against the MCA operative, alluding to the former’s desire for political rejuvenation and the slim chance of it because of the lack of his community’s support and at the same time, slay UMNO-Melayu sacred cows.

Image result for Racism in Malaysia

And therein lies the problem. How does a race-based party operate when it has lost the majoritarian support of the community it claims to represent? How does a race-based party offer dissent or advice when it has to rely on the generosity of UMNO to remain politically relevant? How does a race-based party counter the supposedly race-blind propaganda of the opposition when it does not have the support it needs to offer a counter-narrative because the Chinese community it supposedly represents has abandoned it?

As I wrote in ‘MCA’s long day’s journey into night’, “What is really destroying the MCA is not the propaganda of the DAP but the acceptance by a large voting demographic of the Chinese community that no representation in the government is better than MCA representation.”

In addition, this is not the first time Ti has stirred the pot. Some time back, Ti made the claim that the Federal Constitution was not inherently racist but those with racist intent manipulated its provisions.

I actually thought that MCA was on to something and singled out Ti, writing, “However, the MCA political operative did show some cojones when he said ‘we can consider amending or ratifying our constitution to free ourselves of racism’ but of course, he qualified this with the most overused, disingenuous, servile and obnoxious Malaysian excuse of ‘come a day when we are there – a matured and democratic nation’.”

However, Ti made the same nostalgic claim when he talked about bridge building and ‘Alliance’ cooperation when he correctly pointed out that the constitution needed to be amended, in his own waffling way. He makes the same claim in this mea culpa, alluding to the halcyon days of Alliance politics.

But as I quoted from Mavis Puthucheary’s article, ‘Malaysia’s Social Contract – Exposing the Myth Behind the Slogan’: “In the first 10 years after Independence, the balance of power between the two main parties, UMNO and the MCA, was more or less even. After 1969, however, the balance of power within the ruling coalition shifted significantly in favour of UMNO and the political system itself became less democratic.

“Although both parties fared badly in the 1969 elections, UMNO leaders who had secured control of the government concentrated their efforts on regaining Malay support while still maintaining the power-sharing structure.”

In other words, for BN there is no going back. Unfortunately for MCA, this new alliance spearheaded by the powerbrokers in Pakatan Harapan and the Najib refuseniks is the closest things we will get to the flawed Alliance strategy of yore.

The MCA’s sin is that it does not have the courage either to support its partner, UMNO or leave BN.

http://www.malaysiakini.com –OPINION

Indonesia’s ASEAN leadership lost at sea


September 17, 2016

Indonesia’s ASEAN leadership lost at sea

by Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto

Indonesia likes to portray itself as first among equals in ASEAN. But it’s fundamentally wrong to conceive of ASEAN as a flock of sheep with Indonesia as the shepherd. Every ASEAN nation has its own set of interests and priorities with Beijing, which has become more influential in dictating their South China Sea policies.–Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto

Image result for ASEAN Leaders at Laos Summit 2016

As ASEAN meetings in Vientiane concluded in September 2016, an air of anxiety was already beginning to settle over the Southeast Asian nations. Further resistance against China’s maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea is provingincreasingly futile. Nothing displays this conviction better than ASEAN’s muted acquiescence towards Beijing’s rejection of a legally binding Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) decision in July 2016; ignoring calls from the United States andothers. And it’s wrong to assume that Indonesia’s diplomatic heft in ASEAN could change that.

Prior to the PCA decision, Indonesia had been consistently arguing about the illegality of China’s ‘nine-dash’ or ‘U-shaped’ line claim. This stems from its critical stake in the UNCLOS-based global maritime order — a point Indonesia made clear in its 2010 UN note. It thus begs the question why Indonesia’s foreign ministrystatement did not explicitly support the decision, although President Joko Widodo’s parliamentary address reiterated the statement’s call for conciliatory efforts among claimants. Indonesia could have at least amplified its diplomatic concerns on the illegality of the U-shaped line. But it didn’t, despite plenty of opportunities to do so.

Image result for ASEAN Leaders at Laos Summit 2016

Having been embroiled in fishing skirmishes with China recently, Indonesia’s ‘soft’ response towards the PCA decision is surprising indeed. China consistently supports Indonesia’s territorial sovereignty over the Natuna Islands but it remains ambiguous over the maritime boundary. In June, China broke this ambiguity by stating that its ‘traditional fishing grounds’, as part of the U-shape line, overlap with Indonesia’s claimed exclusive economic zone near the Natunas. In spite of Widodo’s ostentatious display, Indonesia is aware of its limitations in the South China Sea, including a disunity of efforts among its government ministries and agencies.

Indonesia’s response to the PCA decision appears to reflect ASEAN’s general tone. During the ASEAN meetings in July, the PCA decision wasn’t mentioned at all in their joint statements. Still, ASEAN foreign ministers were ‘seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments’, including ‘land reclamation that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea’. They also issued a joint statement with China, with both parties pledging ‘to exercise self-restraint’, including refraining from ‘inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner’.

Image result for ASEAN Leaders at Laos Summit 2016

To be fair, the foreign ministers’ statement is noticeably strong, implicitly aiming at China’s ongoing reclamation activities. But the joint statement is a bit disingenuous, given the PCA decision that none of the Spratly features legally constitute islands. The recent Vientiane talks also stopped short of targeting the core issues. For instance, it adopted the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, or CUES, for naval forces, despite the fact that paramilitary forces such as coastguards lead much of the maritime assertiveness, especially from China.

At heart is the question of whether ASEAN is able to coalesce vis-à-vis China when its largest member, Indonesia, is fixated on its domestic front. Amid budget cuts, trickling foreign investment, and a depreciating rupiah, the economy is what every sensible Indonesian would care about first and foremost. Simply put, Indonesia just doesn’t feel it has the luxury of options, at least for now. Sweet talking is enough to persuade Jakarta about the prospect of Beijing funding Widodo’s maritime vision. Jakarta doesn’t want the South China Sea to overshadow its relationship with Beijing.

Yet Indonesia’s present approach towards China isn’t unique. Once the most confrontational of all, the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte is now doing something similar. And then there’s Cambodia and Laos. Why should Indonesia confront Beijing when others in ASEAN appear either unwilling or unable to do so?

Indonesia likes to portray itself as first among equals in ASEAN. But it’s fundamentally wrong to conceive of ASEAN as a flock of sheep with Indonesia as the shepherd. Every ASEAN nation has its own set of interests and priorities with Beijing, which has become more influential in dictating their South China Sea policies.

Consequently, a wait-and-see approach towards China appears to have prevailed in ASEAN. They ‘wait’ until the other makes the first move towards China, and ‘see’ how favourable China’s response is before making the next move. No ASEAN country is willing to lay all their cards on the table as a precursor to crafting a concerted strategy towards China. And it’s wishful thinking to argue that Indonesia could make that happen.

Indonesia’s ASEAN leadership isn’t about forging a unity among discords, much less building coalitions. Rather, it’s about cobbling together a consensus from the lowest common denominator or low hanging fruit. If and when discords do arise, at most Indonesia tries to mediate or facilitate rather than enforce consensus. Indonesia to ASEAN is not what the United States is to NATO or even what India is to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

Indonesia’s diplomatic aura reveals more strategic weakness than geopolitical dominance. In short, its ‘big country’ syndrome belies a middle power capacity trying to project itself globally through the use of diplomatic apparatus rather than, say, military expeditionary forces.

Asking Indonesia to lead ASEAN on the South China Sea would be too much and too soon. It’s too much because Indonesia doesn’t think of its leadership as such, and too soon because it doesn’t have the capacity to do so — at least not yet. This is why Indonesia sticks to the Declaration of Conduct and the Code of Conduct — because that’s what it can realistically do. If China decides to disregard international law, intimidate its neighbours or continue reclaiming the ocean, there’s little Indonesia can do through ASEAN.

Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto is an Indonesian Presidential PhD Scholar with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University.