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How will the next Indonesian president handle the Asian Cold War?

Publication Date : 27-06-2014

 

Since the 1997-1998 financial crisis, the East Asia region has experienced dramatic socioeconomic change. The new Asian tigers, namely Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and recently the “re-awakened” China, were all born in the region.

The tiger pseudonym was given on account of their mercurial economic growth in recent decades that have seen them gain new status as advanced and high-income countries.

The economic booms experienced by these countries, however, have raised concern from academics and security analysts on the rising risks of military escalation in the region. A study by the Stockholm International Research Institute (SIPRI) in 2011 showed that between 2001 and 2010, overall military expenditure in East Asia (including Northeast and Southeast Asia) had increased by 69 percent, with China alone rising enormously by 189 percent.

As tax-based income grows, military expenditures in East Asian countries have skyrocketed. Without mutual precaution, this security shift will go unchecked and could lead to an arms race in the region.

Another imminent threat to East Asian security is a possible “cold war” between the US and China, the most “aggressive” country not only in terms of military expansion but also assertiveness in the region. Niall Ferguson of Harvard University believes that with its growing power, China will try to reshape the rules and institutions of regional order to better serve its agendas. This has raised concerns from the US as its traditional role as “anchor of order” in the region.

With the recent emergence of territorial disputes in the natural resource-rich waters of the East and South China seas, the power contest has started to show its symptoms. As each country is now starting to weigh its own interests and choose which bloc could provide greater benefits, it leaves the region without a “middle power” that can act as a peace facilitator.

We cannot consider China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines or Vietnam as a possible peace facilitator, as they are direct claimants over the waters’ sovereignty. And despite their major presence in the region, Japan and South Korea can hardly be the appropriate peace facilitator candidates due to their tight and historic alliance with the US bloc.

Hong Kong and Singapore may contribute, but their size and little interest in the waters could prevent them from actively engaging in the cause. Thailand is also now busy rearranging its own democracy following the latest military coup. All of this leaves Indonesia as the only adequate candidate to serve the role in advocating peace in the region.

The debate between presidential candidates Prabowo Subianto and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on Sunday showed that some apparently remain uninformed about Indonesia’s stake in South China Sea, making them wonder why Indonesia should even bother. Actually, besides its reputation as Southeast Asia’s largest economy, the world’s third-largest democracy and relatively balanced connections with both the US and China, Indonesia has direct interest in wanting to prevent the disputes from escalating.

With a possibility of China implementing the Air Defence Identification Zone (Adiz) on the South China Sea, Indonesia would find itself engaged in the dispute whether or not it would like to be. Last February, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said that “Jakarta surely will not accept Beijing’s decision should it want to implement the Adiz over the waters”.

The question now is what should Indonesia do to fulfill its duty? Chicago-based international relations scholar Brad Nelson suggests that Indonesia first assume a firm leadership in Asean in order to make it more consolidated and relevant to the power race in the region. Indonesia, unfortunately, often acts passively and prefers to avoid controversy. This inactive approach makes Asean seem as though it is lacking the steady leadership it needs to address the challenges.

If Indonesia really wants to lead Asean, it needs to step up its game and fill the leadership vacuum in the organization. This can be achieved by taking more initiatives in solving the diverse problems Asean and its member states are facing. This will be the first real challenge for the next president, who needs strong political will and persuasive skills, while at the same time still upholding the independent and active foreign policy doctrine.

After consolidating Asean, according to Oxford University security expert Jorg Friedrichs, Indonesia and Asean need to be more proactively involved in wider regional institutions across East Asia. There are at least four multi-regional instruments that Asean can utilise to promote peace and stability in the region, namely the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), Asean Plus Three (APT), East Asian Summit (EAS) and China-Asean Special Relationship.

Within these forums alone, Asean has access to become a strategic hub for at least 44 other countries in the Asia Pacific, including Canada, European Union and Russia, which share security interests in the area. Particularly, as also suggested by Rene Pattiradjawane (The Jakarta Post, June 20 article titled “The Informal Meeting of the Asean Sea”), the China-Asean Special Relationship could be instrumental in defusing latent distrust between China and its possible “foes” in Southeast Asia.

A moratorium on the issue of possible joint-development program at the natural resource-rich waters, for example, can be further discussed within this forum.

It will be up to the next Indonesian president to decide whether the country will really fulfill its duty as the leader of Asean. Whatever decisions he makes with regard to Indonesia’s future foreign policy, many hope he recognises the importance of Indonesia and Asean in preserving peace and stability in East Asia.

(The writer graduated from Chulalongkorn University in Thailand majoring in Asian studies and the Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul National University, South Korea)

 

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