Jakarta. Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi sees the recently signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as hope for a more cooperative world and an alternative to rivalry-filled post-pandemic economic recvery.
Last week, Asean countries and their trading partners — Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand — signed a free trade agreement to open up new markets and opportunities in the Asia Pacific region. It has become the world’s largest trade agreement, with a market of 2.2 billion people and a combined $26.2 trillion GDP.
“Indonesia and Asean give a primary example of cooperation for the better. The signing of RCEP after eight years of hard negotiation has injected a new hope and optimism for posting Covid-19 economic recovery in the region and beyond,” Retno said in her opening remarks at the international conference Global Town Hall 2020 on Friday.
"A world of more cooperation and fewer rivalries is possible. As long as there is global leadership, solidarity, cooperation, respect towards international law, and an understanding, the only sustainable path is when we progress together," she added.
Retno named maintaining peace and stability amidst ongoing rivalries is one of the challenges the world faces today. On Asean's 53rd anniversary in August, the bloc's foreign ministers released a statement that reinforced their commitment to promoting peace and stability in Southeast Asia.
"This statement should be read as a commitment for Asean to be neutral, forego taking sides in rivalries, and promote cooperation with all partners. What Asean hopes to uphold and spread is the culture of cooperation and dialogue," Retno said.
"Indonesia will continue to uphold the said principles and respect the existing international law, including the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982," she said, alluding to the South China Sea dispute.
Meanwhile, the health crisis coincides with the escalating tension between the US and China.
Retno's predecessor, Marty Natalegawa, sees the US-China competitive dynamics likely to continue under Joe Biden's presidency. Because of this, Indonesia and other third countries in the region should not sit idly by and merely voice their concerns. Instead, they should take a more proactive stance.
"These third countries should make use of their strategic autonomy. They can at least deliver concepts that can stabilize the tension. Even if the rivalry continues, they can minimize the risks of an open conflict," Marty said.
According to Marty, the first part of the Asean Indo-Pacific Outlook document addresses these challenges. The proposed areas of cooperation, however, are in technical and functional fields.
"Whilst the elephant in the room is that there is an ongoing rivalry between major economies like the US-China tension. We need to find a solution to this. If not, these issues do not have a 'home' and will eventually be handled by other countries," he said.
The former minister suggested Asean should establish crisis management capacities to handle the issue on time. This is to prevent miscalculations, which can trigger small incidents to turn into a major crisis.
"There have been several meetings taking place. From January to last week's East Asia Summit, things have happened along the way, starting from the India-Pakistan incident to the dispute over the South China Sea. But all of these do not have a 'home' in terms of crisis management," Marty said.
"Expressing disappointment towards the US-China rivalry is not enough. We have to deliver ideas. If not, Asean becomes an event organizer who is only good at making events but cannot come up with ideas. RCEP shows that with the requisite political, diplomatic as well as intellectual leadership, Asean can deliver," he added.