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Jakarta's Regional Strategy on the Right Track

John Lee

As the East Asia Summit (EAS) hosted by Thailand winds to close, the predictable statements about agreement on closer ties have been duly dispatched by all participating leaders.

However, there is new energy behind the scenes created by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s determination to lead the building of an Asian Pacific Community (APC) as well as Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s East Asian community idea.

Jakarta finds itself in an awkward position because as the largest Southeast Asian state, all the talk seems focused on East Asia and it is wary of being behind effectively excluded. But when it comes to security, Indonesia need not worry.

The building of genuinely new multilateral security architecture is a long way away. If it continues to deepen and bulk up its bilateral relations with key security partners such as the US and increasingly India, then Indonesia will be very well placed when the time for new security architecture—perhaps decades away—arrives.

Effective diplomacy in Asia is reliant just as much on what is not said as what is discussed. The elephant in the room every time future regional security comes up is essentially what to do if China keeps on rising? After all, China is the only potentially revisionist great power in Asia—when it comes to its desire for regional leadership and dissatisfaction with land-based borders (with India and Russia) and maritime claims over four-fifths of the South China Sea which Beijing sees as its “historic waters”.

Yet, although discussion and diplomacy serves to stabilize these disputes and reduce diplomatic misunderstandings, the ultimate restraint on Beijing’s actions if not ambitions is the network of security relationships in the region.

Although all countries in the region see China’s rise as perfectly legitimate and normal, the network of bilateral security relationships usually with the US, serve to reinforce the current open, liberal order that countries including China have risen within. Should Beijing seek to challenge or change the existing order too quickly, the collective weight of these bilateral security relationships would most likely convince China that it would not be wise to do so.

Hence, when it comes to discussion of new top-down multilateral security institutions, substance matters more than form. Even if the region commits to expanding the membership and mandate of an existing institution or else decides to build a new one, security matters that will come under the agenda of the new institution will likely include transnational problems such as drug trafficking, money laundering, piracy and broad security confidence building.

But it will be unlikely that such an institution would cover what Australian Prime Minister Rudd wants for his APC: The full spectrum of security matters that affect the region. Most states would want to exclude agenda items in any multilateral security forum such as top-level security matters such as tensions between the great powers or awkward matters such as an increased role for China’s navy in the region.
Why? Simply because almost all states see it in their interest that they continue to rely on informal, bilateral security networks to manage China’s rise.

To put it bluntly, Asia has come to the practical realization that the existence of cooperation with the US Seventh Fleet is a greater guarantor of peace and prosperity than any meeting of heads of states.

These networks are subtle, have deep historical roots, provide smaller states an effective hedge against China yet it is not explicitly aimed at Beijing, and therefore give Beijing no reason to complain against their existence.

In contrast, moving too quickly towards a top-down multilateral security institution would have possible unintended consequences that might actually exacerbate the insecurity of states in Asia.

First, the great fear of Asian states such as Indonesia is to have to “choose” between the US and China. They have never had to explicitly because they do not take part in any substantive, high-level action-based security forums involving both China and the US. A pan-Asian security forum might very well change that.

Second, any comprehensive architecture might dilute the strategic leverage countries have built up in collectively managing Beijing’s actions since any new top-down security institution would have to formalize equality amongst the great powers.

The unspoken preference of most Asian states is to not offer China a more equal say in security matters, especially in the South China Sea, until China is truly enmeshed and committed to regional rules and norms. This is not yet sufficiently the case.

For example, allowing China a role as an equal security member would make it difficult to resist demands to allow a greater and eventually equal naval presence for Beijing in Southeast Asia and even the Indian Ocean.

Jakarta has some important diplomatic decisions to make such as the right balance between pursuing a greater diplomatic role in East Asia or within ASEAN. But its bottom-up security relations is on the right track. While its relationship with Beijing is stable, its security partnership with Washington is solid and its emerging security cooperation with New Delhi is promising.

Indeed, India conducts more tactical naval exercises with Indonesia than any other Asian state. This is important since India has already become an important structural balance and constraint vis-*-vis China and will become a bigger player in any future security institution.

The key is for regional strategists to make regional leaders such as Prime Ministers Hatoyama and Rudd aware of the unintended consequences of building nice sounding institutions for the region. Indonesia, with excellent relations with both countries, has an important role to play in this regard.

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