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Darwin: SBY trumpets 'ASEAN first' policy stance

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Southeast Asian nations must bolster their alliances amid uncertainty over America's foreign policy plans, former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono says.

He has told the Northern Australia Defence Summit that unity within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations must be a top priority in an increasingly volatile geopolitical climate.

"If President Donald Trump advocates an America-first foreign policy, in my view ASEAN countries should adopt an ASEAN-first stance," Dr Yudhoyono said in Darwin on Wednesday.

The retired general raised concerns about increasing tension between the major powers but stopped short of labelling it a new cold-war era.

Dr Yudhoyono, who was president from 2004 to 2014, said Australia and Indonesia's diplomatic ties had grown to become fundamentally sound and played a central role in maintaining stability in the region.

He called for a closer partnership between the two middle powers amid growing security challenges including natural disasters, people smuggling, terrorism, piracy and kidnapping.

Strategic and Defence Studies Centre head John Blaxland says the ex-president's ambitions could be derailed by his "short-sighted" successor, Joko Widodo, who has an "Indonesia first" mentality similar to Trump's.

"It's a reductionist view of the world. Indonesia under Jokowi is not living up to its potential as the leader of the region. That's a problem for our neighbourhood," Professor Blaxland said.

"SBY is speaking out on these issues because he recognises his successor is not nearly as aspirational in this domain."

Prof Blaxland said another obstacle is the divisiveness of ASEAN itself, claiming Laos and Cambodia have already been "bought off" by China.

Dr Yudhoyono also admitted "rising strategic rivalries" from countries outside the region risked disrupting ASEAN's unity.

He predicted Mr Trump would announce a more coherent Asia policy during his tour of Asia in November.

"Given his preoccupation with China, with US trade deficit, with the South China Sea, President Trump will necessarily have to actively engage east Asian countries and ASEAN with or without a policy doctrine," Dr Yudhoyono said.

© AAP

IMAGE/FILE - then Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono speaks during the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)