Indonesia will continue to play a role as facilitator to reduce tension and avoid conflicts in Asia and the Pacific region, as the United States and China look to engage in a heated rivalry in the region in the coming months.
As new tensions emerging in the East China Sea could spill over to the South China Sea, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa guarantees that Indonesia will remain neutral, and will actively contribute to maintain peace in the region.
“While we have a global perspective, our focus is in our region where we live. Our foreign policy’s cornerstone will still be prioritizing diplomacy and negotiation to solve all problems, while avoiding the use of violence,” he told the Jakarta Globe in an interview last week.
Possible conflicts threaten to tear the region apart as countries are still facing a deficit of trust generated by internal territorial conflicts.
Marty said Indonesia would try to prevent any major power dominating the region because it would invite another party to counter-balance the dominant power, causing the region to fall into a stalemate where countries would be forced to chose sides.
“We must avoid a situation where we fall back into a Cold War mentality of balancing and rebalancing the existing dominant power because such a situation will spark tension and conflict,” he said.
Marty said it is in Indonesia’s best interest to maintain peace in the region as only under such conditions can countries, and subsequently the world, experience economic growth.
South China Sea
While Marty did not refer to any particular powers, overlapping claims to parts of the strategically vital and potentially resource-rich South China Sea between China and four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei — have divided the grouping of the 10 Southeast Asian countries.
“Vietnam and the Philippines will look for help from the US while we know that Cambodia is China’s close ally. Meanwhile, Indonesia, — Asean’s biggest member — is trying to be neutral,” said Aleksius Jemadu, dean of the Pelita Harapan University’s School of Social and Political Sciences.
He expressed fear that the territorial disputes would force Asean members to take sides with China — a rising global power — or the United States, the world’s existing superpower.
“I feel that tension is extraordinarily high recently. Pride, nationalism and territorial disputes could push the region to the brink of conflict,” Aleksius said.
Several encounters between ships of the competing countries have caused concerns that miscalculation could lead to war.
China last week confirmed an incident between a Chinese naval vessel and a US warship in the South China Sea, after Washington said a guided missile cruiser had avoided a collision with a Chinese warship maneuvering nearby.
Experts said the near-miss between the USS Cowpens and a Chinese warship operating near China’s only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was the most significant US-China maritime incident in the disputed South China Sea since 2009.
“How often can an encounter like this take place before they open fire on each other? A small miscalculation will cause open war,” Aleksius said.
Marty, however, said Indonesia will try by any means possible to make Asean stay united and seek peaceful resolutions of all disputes. That’s why, he said, Indonesia introduced the concept of dynamic equilibrium where the region should be seen as naturally dynamic, with tensions that can take place across the region on any issues but should end up in new equilibrium without having to resort to conflict. With this doctrine, Indonesia hopes Washington and Beijing would agree to coexist rather than compete for supremacy in the region.
Aleksius said Indonesia has all the credentials to play a role as peacemaker in the region because it does not have territorial disputes in the South China Sea and so far can maintain distance between United States and China.
Rules of the game
To ensure disputes in the South China Sea will not develop into conflicts, Indonesia has pushed for the realization of code of conduct for the region.
“Indonesia has proposed a draft for the code of conduct where we specify in details how a country or ships should behave within the sea so that there will be no misunderstanding and miscalculation,” Marty said.
He said Asean and China have started discussions on the issue.
“While we don’t have a time frame for such a code of conduct, China’s willingness to discuss it is already a positive development,” Marty added.
He said Indonesia has also implemented a hotline among leaders in the region, allowing leaders to call one another when a problem arises, and peacefully resolve any misunderstandings.
In a larger scheme, Marty has also proposed a treaty to the regional community, which requires countries in Asia and the Pacific to commit themselves to peaceful dispute settlements, without resorting to the use of force.
He said Indonesia had submitted the unofficially dubbed Indo-Pacific Treaty because each of the Asean countries are at the center of dynamic relations with countries in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where armed conflicts could have a direct affect on them.
Marty said Indonesia should come up with an idea to anticipate conflict in the region, offering a preemptive mechanism for conflict prevention and resolution.
He said Asean has created legal instruments, including the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) to ensure peaceful dispute settlements and avoid the use of force among signatory states.
Marty said the Indo-Pacific region needed a similar treaty of friendship and cooperation.
On Indonesia’s tense relations with Australia, following an accusation that it wiretapped President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, first lady Ani Yudhoyono and other high-ranking officials, Marty said Indonesia would bide its time and wait, instead of rushing to make a code of behavior and resume ties between the two countries.
He compared the process of improving relations to the task of “changing the oil in a car.”
“We don’t want any more new surprises,” he said, adding that additional revelations may surface in connection to the spying activities.
“You first have to make sure every trace of oil is removed from the car before filling it with new oil. There is no use in building and implementing a code of conduct when new revelations can possibly come to light,” he said.