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OECD: An Increasingly Hot Topic of Southeast Asia

Tahlia Beckitt 

Source: Depositphotos

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, more commonly referred to as the OECD, has always enjoyed a level of international influence. A key player in shaping global economic policies and standards in the international sphere since its inception in 1961, the OECD has previously prioritised advanced economies. However, in recent years, the group has become increasingly relevant in Southeast Asia, with Thailand announcing an intention to pursue membership within the organisation, joining an existing membership bid from Indonesia. Numerous other Southeast Asian countries may also seek membership in the coming years, with all ten ASEAN nations regularly participating in OECD programs. 

The OECD: Relevant or an Imperial Relic?

Historically, the OECD has been dominated by countries across North America, Europe and the Indo-Pacific (read Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea) with a total of 38 members. While there are several countries that don’t fully fit this mould, with three Latin American members, and Turkey and Israel representing the Middle East, no OECD nation is outrightly allied against the US. Indeed, the OECD is a predominantly Western, US supporting organisation

Although the organisation has seen engagement and cooperation with diverse non-member countries, including China and much of Southeast Asia, membership has always been limited to the “advanced economies” of the world. This has allowed for a natural prioritisation of Western values and dominance within the organisation. The OECD has also historically strived for impartiality within its work, however as a forum, it has been forced to operate at the whim of member interests and perspectives.


The OECD is famous for its promotion of transparency, good governance and adherence to international standards. With an increasing global shift towards authoritarianism, these values have never been more important or controversial. As such, membership within the OECD generates accountability and restricts deviance from international norms while also providing economic opportunities.

Southeast Asian Interest in the OECD: Where and Why Now?


2024 marks 17 years of Indonesian engagement with the OECD, where it, among other roles, has acted as an OECD Key Partner Country since 2007. Indonesia spent much of 2023 indicating its intention to seek membership, a proposal that US President Joe Biden announced his support for in November 2023. The process was then formally kickstarted by the OECD in February 2024, a week after Indonesia’s Presidential election. Although Indonesia will likely be successful in gaining membership to the group, it will be a long process, potentially continuing into the 2030s.


As the first applicant from Southeast Asia, Indonesia will lead the way from “one of the most dynamic growth regions in the world.” Indonesia has spent the last few years focussing on reform and the process of becoming a developed country by 2045, through the ‘Golden Indonesia 2045 Vision.’ With Indonesia reaching the 100 year anniversary of its independence in 2045, the goal sees it aim to become an economically, socially, culturally, and politically developed and prosperous nation by that time. 

OECD membership will doubtlessly contribute to the vision through its mandatory regulatory and economic standards for members. Additionally, the OECD has acted as a forum promoting trade relationships between members and association with the well-respected organisation will also see Indonesia able to raise its international profile. As Indonesia is highly focused on developing its economy to achieve this goal, membership in the OECD is very desirable.


While Indonesia’s ascension process has mostly garnered positive reactions from existing OECD member countries, Israel has objected to Indonesia’s potential membership. The move is likely linked to Indonesia’s staunch criticism of Israel in the Israel-Gaza conflict. Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country, has been one of the loudest voices of support for the Palestinian people since Israel’s invasion of Gaza. However, in line with its goal to join the OECD, recent reports have indicated that Indonesia and Israel may normalise ties, with Indonesia becoming less vocal about the conflict in recent weeks.


Much like Indonesia, Thailand also hopes to join the OECD, however talks have not yet begun. Currently, Thailand is involved in 11 OECD initiatives, with the Thailand-OECD relationship dating to the early 2000s. Mirroring Indonesia’s process in 2023, Thailand recently submitted a letter of intent to the OECD, as it aims to become a more competitive and strong economy in the global sphere. Thai Prime Minister, Srettha Thavisin, has been particularly vocal in his desire to see the nation join the OECD, engaging in active lobbying towards the OECD’s Secretary General and the member countries more broadly. Thavisin has also spent a significant amount of energy in marketing Thailand’s economic developmental model, known as the Bio-Circular-Green (BCG). The BCG operates as a strategy focused on applying scientific innovation and technology to promote sustainability and combat existing and future environmental challenges.


The trade opportunities provided by membership within the forum are highly desirable to the nation as it aims to realise its economic potential. Indeed, Thailand has indicated a desire to increase its free trade agreements, with OECD membership removing significant foundational barriers to this goal. Likewise, the OECD’s economic standards, while a potentially difficult mechanism to implement across Thailand given the lack of skilled workers, will also generate more efficient and transparent institutions. 

Membership Ramifications in the Broader International Sphere

The ascension of Thailand and Indonesia to membership within the OECD will broaden its reach, giving it firmer access to a region previously considered underdeveloped. The very fact that Southeast Asia has increasingly been included in conversations, even without membership, points to a marked shift in Western dominated organisations from the mid 20th century. Southeast Asia is increasingly influential, but it is now being recognised for its value. No country within the OECD is opposed to the inclusion of Indonesia over issues of developmental capability, with Israel’s objections revolving around political motives rather than the value of Indonesian contributions.


Moreover, despite a historically discriminatory framework due to its preference for advanced economies and Western nations, the OECD has decades of cooperation with countries like China and Russia under its belt. Despite the fact that all partnerships with Russia have ceased as a result of its continued occupation of Ukraine, the OECD is well known for its widespread engagement. In this way, as a purely economic, social and environmental organisation, attempting to gain membership within the OECD is in no way similar to Ukrainian attempts to join NATO, despite both organisations having inherent Western values, perspectives and intentions. As such, Indonesian or Thai membership is unlikely to cause a significant geopolitical issue in the short-term. 


However, as a democratic style organisation at the whim of the perspectives of its members, the OECD’s famous impartiality wears thin. As the great power competition heats up between the US and China, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, granting greater influence to a Western organisation is bound to see at least some long-term ramifications. 


Nevertheless, unlike the Belt and Road initiative, which acts as a hub and spokes arrangement, the OECD provides a forum of collaboration, communication and opportunity. And for developing countries such as Indonesia and Thailand, that is simply too good an opportunity to pass up. For this reason, further engagement from developing countries aiming to leave that label behind, within the traditionally “advanced economies” focused organisation, may very well become a reality.


Tahlia Beckitt is currently studying International Relations at Curtin University and was the Future of Work delegate at the 2023 G20 Youth Summit in India. A former intern at Castle Asia in Jakarta, Tahlia is highly interested in Australia’s relations with Southeast Asia and the potential for effective and respectful diplomacy and cooperation between Australia and the broader Indo-Pacific. Tahlia has also engaged as a speaker at the 2023 World Food Forum Flagship Event and volunteers for the ASEAN-Australia Strategic Youth Partnership.



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