Indonesia—the world’s fourth-largest country, third-largest democracy, and home to the world’s largest Muslim population—will hold legislative and presidential elections in 2014. After ten years of stable leadership under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, this political transition will affect not only the future of Indonesia but also the security and development of Southeast Asia as a whole.

Indonesia’s elections come at a time of regional and global shifts in the balance of power. These shifts are driven in large part by the rise of China and the rebalancing of U.S. foreign policy toward Asia. They are also fueled by the proliferation of nontraditional security threats, the spread of democracy and human rights movements in Southeast Asia, and growing cross-border challenges that require regional responses.

The rest of Southeast Asia will look to Indonesia for leadership and guidance in adjusting to accommodate these changes in the world order. The country’s size, democratic institutions, and economic performance have given it considerable heft in regional and world affairs. As a result, Indonesia’s strategic choices in the region today will extend far beyond its borders and have ramifications that will echo for generations to come.

The next Indonesian leader must therefore choose the country’s priorities for the coming decade carefully. In addition to addressing five vital economic priorities, the new president would do well to focus on three strategic regional priorities—increasing defense cooperation and defense diplomacy with key strategic partners, improving the nation’s and the region’s human rights records, and overhauling the secretariat of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the most important regional institution. These three priorities reflect an overarching vision that Indonesia should shape its geostrategic environment in a way that guides the country and the region toward long-term peace, stability, and development.

Indonesia’s Regional Leadership

Since the Vietnam War, Southeast Asia has reaped handsome peace dividends. Economic and social development has been rapid, and the region’s institutional architecture has created opportunities for dialogue, cooperation, and new initiatives to resolve regional challenges.

Indonesia has been an important force in bringing about these developments and a key beneficiary of them. The country’s rapid economic growth and its achievements in poverty reduction over the last four decades have been matched by only a handful of developing countries. And over the last ten years, it has emerged as a beacon of democracy and a champion of human rights.

Indonesia is also the only Southeast Asian nation that is a member of the G20. Its leadership roles in ASEAN, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, and the World Trade Organization and on climate change diplomacy have also helped it attain a prominent position on the world stage.

But it must use this position wisely. Indonesia’s influence in shaping its regional environment will largely depend on its ability to leverage Southeast Asia’s institutional architecture to build an economic and security framework that supports peace, stability, and development in the region. It will be in Indonesia’s national interest if Southeast Asia possesses institutions that can meet the challenges the region will likely confront in the coming decade.

Strengthen Defense Cooperation and Diplomacy

The foreign policy agenda for any national leader is always shaped, first and foremost, by the need to protect the nation’s vital interests and national sovereignty from external threats. In a rapidly shifting geostrategic environment, the external threats facing Indonesia can be expected to be many and complex.

The most prominent challenges will stem from the rise of China as an economic and military superpower and its ramifications on the existing balance of power in the region and the world. But Indonesia will also face a range of nontraditional threats including, for instance, terrorism and piracy. To meet these challenges, a key priority of Indonesia’s next president must be to increase the country’s security capabilities by strengthening its security cooperation with strategic allies, modernizing its military, and bolstering the foundations of strategic cooperation through defense diplomacy.

Recognizing that its security is closely intertwined with that of Southeast Asia itself, Indonesia has sought to promote regional security cooperation. When it was the chair of ASEAN in 2003, Indonesia floated ambitious proposals for a regional peacekeeping force and an ASEAN security community.

ASEAN member countries, however, opted for the path of “soft cooperation” through regional security organizations like the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting–Plus, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the Pacific Armies Management Seminar, and the Western Pacific Naval Symposium. These institutions perform a valuable service by providing a venue for dialogue and information sharing. They also promote joint responses to nontraditional security threats (such as antipiracy and counterterrorism programs), humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, military-to-military exchanges, and increasingly joint military and naval exercises.

Such regional cooperation, however, stopped well short of the stronger security arrangements needed to face future challenges. This was in part due to continuing fiscal challenges and echoes of the 1998 Asian financial crisis. It was also because ASEAN member countries experienced lingering mistrust, lacked a perception of shared threats, and associated regional military pacts with their colonial pasts.

But Southeast Asia’s security environment has since changed rapidly in ways that make stronger regional security arrangements more important than ever before. China’s rise is increasingly considered a shared threat by many ASEAN states. Beijing’s recent announcement of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) covering most of the East China Sea, including areas claimed by Japan, was one among a series of Chinese actions in support of the country’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. Just six days later, Hainan, a Chinese province, issued fishing regulations covering more than 2 million square kilometers of the South China Sea that overlap with areas also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam.

Both announcements have reinforced concerns about China’s strategic intentions in the region and heightened anxieties among its neighbors. The ADIZ announcement, in particular, has raised tensions in the East China Sea to a point where the slightest miscalculation by patrolling aircraft or ships of either Japan or China around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands could potentially lead to conflict with severe consequences for other countries in the region.

Once its enforcement infrastructure is in place, China has every intention of extending its ADIZ to cover the South China Sea. This will have consequences for Southeast Asia in general and Indonesia in particular as it will constrain sea and air lines of communication across the South China Sea and the Pacific.

Being a maritime country, Indonesia’s future economic, energy, and food security rests on its freedom to navigate on the seas and in the air. Indeed, all of Southeast Asia relies on sea and air lines of communication for its international commerce with Northeast Asia and the Americas. Its strategic location straddling the Strait of Malacca has afforded Southeast Asia enormous benefits that the countries of the region have translated into stability and prosperity. Neither Indonesia nor the region can afford to have these vital transport links constrained by any country’s decision to act in a manner that changes the status quo or violates international law.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that growth in defense spending in Southeast Asia is among the highest in the world. Yet no country in the region has the capacity to go toe-to-toe with China. To protect its vital interests, including the freedom of navigation based on internationally accepted norms and rules, Indonesia’s only route forward is to strengthen existing security relationships with its ASEAN neighbors and build security ties with key global powers. In particular, it should reach out to like-minded countries that share its values of democracy and human rights, such as Australia, Japan, India, South Korea, and the United States.

There is also considerable room to expand engagement with the United States and India in facing nontraditional threats such as terrorism. In addition, Indonesia should pursue enhanced cooperation with global powers on training, weapons purchases, shared intelligence, joint radar and air-defense capabilities, joint military exercises, and military medicine.

Enhancing global security cooperation will also help further what should be another critical element of the new president’s strategy: professionalizing the Indonesian National Armed Forces and giving them the leadership and the mandate to safeguard the country’s national sovereignty. Current consensus in Indonesia holds that the armed forces should be oriented away from internal security objectives and toward defending Indonesia’s vast territorial and maritime interests.

To that end, the new president should institute a military modernization effort that focuses on three key goals—shifting the strategic focus of the armed forces away from internal security and toward safeguarding the nation’s territorial integrity against external threats; ensuring that the weapons systems of different branches of the military are not only compatible with but also reinforce one another; and making Indonesia’s military systems and equipment interoperable with those of other countries with which it has security relationships.

The Indonesian government is actively upgrading the military’s capability and has ambitious plans to purchase submarines, aircraft, helicopters, tanks, artillery, armored vehicles, and radar surveillance systems from its major defense partners. These arms purchases should be supportive of an overall defense strategy that considers the range of external threats that may emerge in the future. Indonesia’s defense planning should also include appropriate technology-sharing agreements and support the development of the country’s defense industry based on a realistic assessment of domestic capability. Furthermore, Indonesia must carefully balance its desire to diversify its sources of arms acquisition with the need to ensure compatibility across different weapons systems with varying technical standards.

Indonesia’s defense cooperation efforts should be accompanied by continued robust defense diplomacy. Most importantly, occasional differences and disagreements with other countries—such as the recent dispute with Australia over allegations that Australian officials had spied on their Indonesian counterparts—should not be allowed to derail long-term cooperation on security issues. Defense diplomacy will also be important in facing nontraditional security challenges, which are a common threat that must be tackled in cooperation with other countries for long-term results.

Improve the Region’s Human Rights Record

Indonesia’s standing in regional and global affairs will also depend on its efforts to protect human rights in Southeast Asia. Since the fall of former Indonesian president Suharto in 1998, the country’s international identity has become closely intertwined with the promotion of human rights. Advancing that agenda and declaring human rights a core value not just in Indonesia but also for the region should be a key priority for the next president.

Promoting these values will further burnish Indonesia’s credibility in the international community and increase its influence in Asian and global affairs. It will also reinforce in global public opinion that Indonesia shares core values with its important, long-term strategic partners (including other ASEAN member countries, the United States, Europe, Japan, Australia, and India), which will strengthen the foundations of cooperation in other spheres. In addition, promoting human rights will be just as beneficial at home because evidence suggests that protecting fundamental human rights builds foundations supportive of social and political stability.

Indonesia should ensure that Southeast Asia goes beyond the rhetoric of human rights and practices what it preaches. But in order to do so, Indonesians and the people of ASEAN have to recognize that fundamental human rights are as much an Asian concept as a Western one. Arguments supporting human rights are as prevalent in the religions and classical literature of Asia as they are in the West.

The best way for Indonesia’s new president to promote a regional agenda on human rights is to strengthen the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). Inaugurated in 2009, the commission is institutionally much weaker than Indonesia had originally intended. A few other ASEAN members demanded that the commission’s role be circumscribed to respect ASEAN’s principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of member countries. Historically, this principle has given ASEAN governments considerable latitude in the treatment of their citizens.

The timing of Indonesia’s 2014 election conveniently coincides with the AICHR’s first five-year performance review. Hopefully, that review will determine that the commission should be given greater authority to promote human rights within ASEAN. One approach would be to allow the AICHR to receive individual petitions of human rights violations in member countries, conduct onsite investigations, visit detention centers, and suggest corrective actions. Such reforms would be fully consistent with the gradualist approach to reform that is incorporated in the AICHR charter as well as with the culture of ASEAN as a whole.

Indonesia’s next president could also help strengthen the AICHR by encouraging greater coordination with international bodies and instruments designed to protect human rights. As members of the United Nations, all ASEAN members already give periodic reviews of their human rights records (called Universal Periodic Reviews) to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Copies of these reviews should also be sent to the AICHR, which could then follow up on the recommendations of the UN council and make its own suggestions.

In the future, Indonesia should champion the AICHR’s transformation into an intergovernmental human rights court with the power to require corrective actions from member governments. The court could also be enabled to set up special courts to hear cases under the jurisdiction of the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children and the ASEAN Committee on the Implementation of the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers.

Indonesia may encounter difficulties persuading other ASEAN states to subject themselves to the scrutiny of intergovernmental courts, but there is considerable popular support in Southeast Asia for such human rights institutions. One way to accelerate their establishment would be to make membership optional. Indonesia should be the first in line to volunteer, and it should encourage like-minded countries, such as Singapore, the Philippines, and Thailand, to also serve as pioneers. Once other ASEAN member countries see the human rights court in action, they may feel compelled to join.

Of course, to have the credibility and the persuasive power to push through human rights reforms in ASEAN, Indonesia’s next president will have to ensure that the country’s own human rights record is impeccable and that its National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) functions well. The president should insist that the attorney general act upon the commission’s recommendations and protect the commission’s budget from arbitrary cuts by either the government or parliament.

Most importantly, Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights must become more active in ensuring greater religious tolerance. It can do so by implementing the UN Human Rights Council’s recommendation that it repeal a 1965 law on blasphemy that has been partly responsible for periodic outbreaks of violence against religious minorities. Some Indonesian government officials have incorrectly argued in favor of this law, claiming that fundamental human rights should be balanced against local customs and beliefs. But as a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, Indonesia must certify that its laws and statutes are fully consistent with the letter and spirit of these treaties, which guarantee freedom of religion and prohibit religious discrimination. It must strive to be a leader on religious tolerance not only for its own social stability and as a cornerstone of its democratic values but also because doing so will strengthen its position as a leader on human rights in the region and beyond.

Overhaul the ASEAN Secretariat

To build a defense and security framework and promote human rights in the region, Indonesia’s next president will need to work through Southeast Asia’s existing institutional architecture. ASEAN forms the core of that architecture, and it has recently been the focus of much global attention as it grapples with a range of issues, from tensions in the South China Sea to the formation of the proposed ASEAN Economic Community. But the stress of the spotlight has revealed the institution’s many shortcomings.

Nowhere are these shortcomings more evident—or more critical—than in the ASEAN Secretariat (ASEC), which lies at the center of ASEAN’s institutional structure. According to Surin Pitsuwan, the recently retired secretary general of ASEAN, “if the ASEAN summit is the brain, then the ASEAN Secretariat is the heart.” If that’s the case, then ASEAN’s heart is in need of surgery.

ASEC’s budget is too small for its mandate. Financial contributions to ASEC, currently set at $1.5 million per member per year, gave it an annual budget in 2012 of $15.7 million—which, given ASEAN’s 600 million inhabitants, came to about two and a half cents per capita. This is a pittance for a regional organization covering a broad mandate that includes economic, security, and social issues. In contrast, the European Commission managed approximately $200 billion in contributions from EU member states in 2012, or the equivalent of $400 per capita—16,000 times the per capita amount that ASEC manages.

And ASEC is not just short of money. Its staff is also too ill-equipped in numbers and skills to properly implement ASEAN’s broad mandate. Its staff of 260 is not nearly enough to manage its many responsibilities, let alone spearhead new initiatives. Only slightly over one-third of its staff is recruited openly through a competitive recruitment process. The remainder is assigned from the bureaucracies of member countries. Indonesia’s next president should champion competitive recruitment for all ASEC staff across a wide range of skills.

To attract and retain competitive employees, the next Indonesian leader should also insist that ASEC staff are paid market-determined remuneration and guarantee that careers within ASEC are on par with opportunities elsewhere. He or she should also ensure that recruitment efforts cover existing gaps in critical skills, such as economics, trade, migration, climate change, conflict resolution, and defense cooperation. In addition, budgets for information technologies and staff travel need to be increased to permit greater interaction with member countries and ensure real-time monitoring of the implementation of key agreements.

Perhaps most importantly, the secretary general and the deputy secretaries general should all be recruited through competitive processes. The current arrangement, in which member countries take turns nominating the secretary general, does not always provide candidates with the requisite qualities to lead such an important institution. Of the four deputy secretaries general, two are nominated by member states on a rotating basis and two are openly recruited through a merit-based process. Three of these deputies are responsible for overseeing ASEAN’s political-security, economic, and sociocultural affairs, respectively, and the fourth manages ASEAN’s corporate affairs. Each shoulders important and far-reaching responsibilities, so selecting all four through competitive recruitment would ensure that every ASEAN priority area is managed by someone appropriately qualified for the task.

Indonesia’s next president should also encourage ASEC to overhaul its internal work processes. For example, the work and responsibilities of the Committee of Permanent Representatives—a recently instituted feature of ASEC—should be reevaluated. The committee comprises senior officials who represent their respective member governments, but it lacks a clear role. As a result, it has been known to interfere in the day-to-day running of ASEC, including in budget and work programming issues that should be the sole responsibility of the secretary general.

Instead, the committee could handle other important functions that currently remain unassigned. These could include acting as the governing council of ASEC; implementing the enhanced dispute settlement mechanism, a process for resolving economic disagreements among ASEAN states; or guiding the institution on strategic, political, and security issues.

ASEC should also be given greater authority and autonomy in its decisionmaking. It currently has to refer every decision to its member capitals. Instead, the secretary general should be given the freedom to run the organization under the oversight of a governing council—which could be the Committee of Permanent Representatives—that meets once or twice a year at the most.

In addition, the organizational and institutional relationships between ASEC and other ASEAN organs, particularly those on the security front, should be clarified and observed. These are important forums where ASEAN members and their regional and global partners meet to discuss common security concerns in order to further peace and stability in the region and its environs. But these institutions must graduate from information sharing to defense cooperation, conflict resolution, and even conflict prevention.

ASEAN is fully aware of the need to strengthen ASEC, but progress has been slow. At the end of his tenure, Pitsuwan prepared a report to ASEAN’s leadership in 2011 with recommendations for strengthening the secretariat. In response, ASEAN formed a high-level task force to bolster ASEC and review other ASEAN organs to maintain the organization’s centrality in the evolving regional architecture.

Indonesia’s next president should actively ensure that the task force conducts a thorough, prompt, and objective analysis of not only the authority and mandate of ASEC but also ASEAN’s strategic needs, institutional architecture, and work and budgetary practices. In addition, the review should clarify the organizational, institutional, and procedural relationships between ASEAN’s various organs. Once this analysis is complete, Indonesia should make sure that ASEAN’s leadership implements the task force’s recommendations.

A Regional Future

Indonesia’s future rests with that of Southeast Asia as a whole. If Indonesia is to shape its own geostrategic environment in the rapidly shifting global power landscape, then it must work together with its neighbors to strengthen the region. Identifying the key regional priorities to support in today’s dynamic Asia will be complicated, and making the right decisions will have ramifications that could extend for decades. The country’s next president must give it as much thought as domestic political, social, and economic issues.

There may be little appetite in parliament for shaping a cohesive international strategy, especially when domestic pressures require focus on more voter-resonant issues such as economic development, job creation, and poverty reduction. But the Indonesian political system provides the president some independence and flexibility in pursuing strategic foreign policy and security objectives. The next president should take full advantage of this leeway.

Indonesia’s leadership in the region will resonate across Southeast Asia and beyond. Moreover, a stronger and more strategic region will make it easier for Indonesia’s next president to address domestic priorities—and that is surely an appealing prospect for any politician seeking reelection.