Indonesia, ASEAN, and the Third Indochina War

Indonesia Table of Contents

Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mochtar Kusumaatmadja was chairman of the ASEAN Standing Committee in December 1978 when Vietnam invaded Cambodia, initiating what some observers called the Third Indochina War (1978-91). Mochtar's response, which became the official ASEAN response, was to deplore the Vietnamese invasion and call for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Cambodia. Indonesia and other ASEAN members immediately placed the issue on the agenda of the UN Security Council. It was not long after the invasion, however, that deep differences between Indonesia and Thailand, the "frontline state," regarding the long-term interests of ASEAN were revealed. Although compelled to make a show of solidarity with Thailand by its interest in sustaining ASEAN itself, Indonesia began to see the prolongation of the war in Cambodia, the "bleeding Vietnam white" strategy, as not being in its or the region's interests. Although never retreating from ASEAN's central demand of Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia and Khmer self-determination, Indonesia actively sought to engage the Khmers and Vietnamese and their external sponsors in a search for a settlement that would recognize legitimate interests on all sides. From 1982 to the signing of the Final Act of the Paris International Conference on Cambodia on October 23, 1991, Indonesian diplomacy played a central role in peace negotiations under both Mochtar and his successor, Ali Alatas.

Indonesia opened what came to be called "dual-track" diplomacy, in which it pursued bilateral political communication with Vietnam while maintaining its commitment to the ASEAN formula. By 1986 ASEAN had accepted Indonesia its official "interlocutor" with Vietnam. The breakthrough came in July 1987, in the Mochtar-Nguyen Co Thach (Vietnam's minister of foreign affairs) communiqué in which Vietnam accepted the idea of an informal meeting between the Khmer parties, to which other concerned countries would be invited. This was the so-called "cocktail party" formula. This eventually led to the first Jakarta Informal Meeting in July 1988, at which the issue of the Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia--the external question--was decoupled from the Khmer "civil war"--the internal question. The second Jakarta Informal Meeting took place in February 1989 after a change of government in Thailand had radically shifted Bangkok's policy toward a quick negotiated settlement. The second Jakarta meeting, chaired by Alatas, at which Vietnam accepted the notion of an "international control mechanism" for Cambodia, was followed by escalating diplomatic activity--efforts that led to the July 1990 Paris International Conference on Cambodia cochaired by Indonesia and France. The conference adjourned without making great progress, but by then international events influencing great power relations had outpaced ASEAN's and Indonesia's ability to coordinate. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council--working through Paris International Conference on Cambodia channels--took up the challenge of negotiating a peace settlement in Cambodia and, with Indonesia assuming a burdensome diplomatic role, fashioned a peace agreement that led to the deployment of forces of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC).

Indonesia's sense of achievement and pride in its role in bringing peace to Indochina was reflected in three events. On November 12, 1990, Suharto arrived in Hanoi for the first meeting between an ASEAN head of government and a Vietnamese counterpart since Premier Pham Van Dong visited Thailand's prime minister Kriangsak Chomanand in 1977. On March 15, 1992, Japan's Akashi Yasushi, the UN undersecretary general for disarmament and newly appointed head of UNTAC, arrived in Phnom Penh to be greeted by a color guard of Indonesian troops who were part of the first full battalion-sized contingent of UNTAC peacekeepers dispatched to Cambodia. At the peak deployment of foreign peacekeeping forces in late 1992, Indonesia had the largest force in Cambodia with nearly 2,000 military and police personnel, representing 10 percent of the total. Finally, in mid-1991, fresh from diplomatic success in helping to end the Cambodian civil war, Indonesia took the initiative in seeking to open multilateral negotiations on competitive South China Sea claims, especially those claims involving jurisdictional disputes over the Spratly Islands.

Indonesia's gradually assertive role in the Cambodian peace effort demonstrated that Jakarta was not entirely willing to place its commitment to ASEAN solidarity above its own national interests. The Jakarta Post, often reflective of official positions, thundered in an editorial, "It is high time to spell out clearly to our ASEAN partners, as the largest archipelagic state in Southeast Asia with a growing national interest to protect, that we simply cannot afford the endless prolonging of the Kampuchean conflict." A caption in the Far Eastern Economic Review caught the mood more succinctly: "Indonesia in ASEAN: fed up being led by the nose." Less colloquially, Indonesian analyst Dewi Fortuna Anwar wrote in the Review: "The challenge for Indonesian foreign policy in the future is how to maintain a balance between an ASEAN policy which requires goodwill and trust of the other members, and satisfying some of the internationalist aspirations of a growing number of the Indonesian political elite."

The settlement of the Cambodian conflict, Southeast Asia's own cold war, combined with the dramatically altered balance of power in the region, raised the question of what new political cement might hold ASEAN together in the post-Cold War environment in the early 1990s. Competitive claims by the nations involved in the jurisdictional competition in the South China Sea had the potential for conflict but did not pose the direct threat to ASEAN's collective security interest, as had the Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia. General suspicion about China's long-term ambitions in the region was too diffuse to generate consensual policy. Indonesia, still insisting that ZOPFAN had validity for the region, initially looked coolly on United States efforts to enhance its military access elsewhere in Southeast Asia after the closure of its Philippines' military base. Jakarta did not want to create an even more legitimate opportunity for superpower intervention in its region.

Indonesia resisted the urging of some ASEAN members that ASEAN formally adopt a more explicit common political-security identity. Indonesia successfully opposed Singapore's proposal at the ASEAN Fourth Summit that would have invited the UN Security Council's five permanent members to accede to ASEAN's 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. Although very cool to the notion that some kind of Helsinki-like formula for regional peace and security could be extended to Asia, Indonesia agreed to a political and security agenda for ASEAN's annual PostMinisterial Conference with its official partners. In part, Indonesian ambivalence about an ASEAN security role, together with its reluctance to mesh its economy with an ASEAN regional economy, arose from Indonesia's desire to keep its options open as it pursued its interests, not just as an ASEAN country, but as an increasingly important Asia-Pacific regional power. However, even as Indonesia looked beyond Southeast Asia to enhance its status as an important middle power, ASEAN still provided a valuable instrument for wielding noncoercive regional influence and gaining attention in the wider international arena.

More about the Government and Politics of Indonesia.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress