Comment – The Indonesian Century?

Visiting U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis shakes hands with Indonesia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi at the Foreign Ministry in Jakarta, Indonesia on January 22, 2018. Reuters

The focus of American foreign policy in containing China for too long has been on grand ideas: first the ‘Pivot’, now the ‘Quad’. Neither attempt has changed the regional dynamics in a favourable way for the United States. In this respect, the time is ripe for the United States to abandon grand ideas, and instead pick good allies. In doing so, whether it is hedging against China’s growing regional preponderance, or protecting strategically vital trade routes, there is an obvious potential partner at the southern tip of the South China Sea: Indonesia.

As the US-led anti-China coalition continues to take shape the United States needs more allies to maintain their regional position. Indonesia is the last member of ASEAN left with the willingness or the capacity to challenge China in a meaningful way. They have been historically reluctant to partner with the Americans and have pursued a grand strategy of non-alignment and multilateralism, but fear is a powerful thing. One not to be underestimated.

Additionally, these moves do have a form of precedent. Indonesia collaborated aggressively in suppressing communism in the 1960s alongside the United States. This is not to condone the behaviour that went hand in hand with that particular collaboration, but merely to assert that they have been prepared to partner on the basis of aligned interests before. There is no reason why they should not be prepared to do so again.

China’s Nine Dash Line. RFA

Chinese willingness to use force to impose their Nine-Dash Line claim to virtually the whole of the South China Sea has worried Jakarta. As recently as December 2017 Indonesia announced that it had “seized yet another Chinese vessel suspected of illegal fishing around the country’s waters”. Add to this their Island construction aimed at further extending this Chinese claim, as well as subsequent militarisation of these islands, and it is easy to see how regional powers have become unsettled. Some, like the Philippines, have fallen into line behind the Chinese, but Indonesia like a punch-drunk boxer is still standing.

As has been frequently noted, the Nine Dash Line “has only a fragile basis in debatable historiography [and] dubious cartography.” This has made it necessary for the Chinese to continuously challenge Indonesia directly “by insisting on claiming the most distant zone of the Natuna Islands, against the largest country among the rival claimants.” For if they can assert their claim under these circumstances then who else would dare challenge it? The lack of legitimacy of this claim, which was reinforced by the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016, and the fear this has created has established an increased sense of Indonesian defiance.

Ultimately this is a competition. A competition between the United States and China. This is one thing that was clear from a summary look at the Singapore Air Show last year. Throughout the six-day event, it was blatantly obvious that China and the United States were overtly competing for the favour of ASEAN powers. ASEAN is quickly becoming the diplomatic battleground of the evolving hegemonic clash.

In Singapore for the Air Show, Senior US diplomat Tina S. Kaidanow highlighted the availability of “equipment for maritime domain awareness, for maritime security…[as] that’s important for them.” In a similar vein, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein said: “he plans to raise the subject of partnering on the light-attack program in his meetings this week with Asian military and civilian defence leaders.” Combine these two comments together and the picture is clear: The United States is attuned to the strategic concerns of ASEAN countries, and is willing to offer affordable procurement opportunities to combat these concerns.

Indonesia is the perfect regional partner for the United States for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it is geographically one of the safest of the potential partners. The reality is that the majority of disputed territories in the South China Sea do not directly concern Indonesia. Indonesia is geographically distant from the hotly contested Spratly Islands, Paracels and the Scarborough Shoal. Moreover, it does not have competing claims with other ASEAN members. Thus, partnering with Indonesia has a lower risk of entanglement than, for example, partnering with Vietnam would.

Secondly, Indonesia is one of the largest of the ASEAN powers. It has the largest economy in the bloc accounting for 40 per cent of the region’s economic output and is expected to be the world’s fourth-largest economy by 2050. It has one of the highest defence budgets in ASEAN at $8.1 billion, only second to Singapore’s $10.2 billion.

The straits of Malacca and other key trading routes. CSIS

Thirdly, Indonesia controls the Straits of Malacca, one of the most important shipping lanes in the world, as well as potential alternative shipping routes to the west. Maintaining these routes ought to be a prime strategic concern of the United States’ foreign policy. Indonesia also benefits from improving relations with India such that it could “exert pressure on China if it comes to that by limiting its commodity shipments to China now that Indian demand keeps rising.” This is an economic lever that could be of benefit to the United States during a crisis.

Finally, Indonesia already has a close “structured security connection with Australia, which itself has the closest possible alliance with the United States, Indonesia needs no formal arrangement to signify its membership in the emerging anti-China coalition.” Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that Indonesia is proving willing to defend its perceived turf – sinking illegal fishing boats, including Chinese ones.

This is where the role of Indonesia is so vital to American interests, and why it is the undeserved last mention on the list of key players in the emerging anti-China coalition across the Indo-Pacific. The importance of potential partnership with Indonesia has been an avenue too often neglected in American statecraft. It should be neglected no longer. Indonesia can be the bridge to providing American foreign policy in Asia with some potency, and be a reliable ally of the United States at minimal cost. It may not be the Indonesian century just yet, but the United States needs strong allies to delay the Chinese century.

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