Indonesia’s ASEAN leadership lost at sea

September 17, 2016

Indonesia’s ASEAN leadership lost at sea

by Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto

Indonesia likes to portray itself as first among equals in ASEAN. But it’s fundamentally wrong to conceive of ASEAN as a flock of sheep with Indonesia as the shepherd. Every ASEAN nation has its own set of interests and priorities with Beijing, which has become more influential in dictating their South China Sea policies.–Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto

Image result for ASEAN Leaders at Laos Summit 2016

As ASEAN meetings in Vientiane concluded in September 2016, an air of anxiety was already beginning to settle over the Southeast Asian nations. Further resistance against China’s maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea is provingincreasingly futile. Nothing displays this conviction better than ASEAN’s muted acquiescence towards Beijing’s rejection of a legally binding Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) decision in July 2016; ignoring calls from the United States andothers. And it’s wrong to assume that Indonesia’s diplomatic heft in ASEAN could change that.

Prior to the PCA decision, Indonesia had been consistently arguing about the illegality of China’s ‘nine-dash’ or ‘U-shaped’ line claim. This stems from its critical stake in the UNCLOS-based global maritime order — a point Indonesia made clear in its 2010 UN note. It thus begs the question why Indonesia’s foreign ministrystatement did not explicitly support the decision, although President Joko Widodo’s parliamentary address reiterated the statement’s call for conciliatory efforts among claimants. Indonesia could have at least amplified its diplomatic concerns on the illegality of the U-shaped line. But it didn’t, despite plenty of opportunities to do so.

Image result for ASEAN Leaders at Laos Summit 2016

Having been embroiled in fishing skirmishes with China recently, Indonesia’s ‘soft’ response towards the PCA decision is surprising indeed. China consistently supports Indonesia’s territorial sovereignty over the Natuna Islands but it remains ambiguous over the maritime boundary. In June, China broke this ambiguity by stating that its ‘traditional fishing grounds’, as part of the U-shape line, overlap with Indonesia’s claimed exclusive economic zone near the Natunas. In spite of Widodo’s ostentatious display, Indonesia is aware of its limitations in the South China Sea, including a disunity of efforts among its government ministries and agencies.

Indonesia’s response to the PCA decision appears to reflect ASEAN’s general tone. During the ASEAN meetings in July, the PCA decision wasn’t mentioned at all in their joint statements. Still, ASEAN foreign ministers were ‘seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments’, including ‘land reclamation that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea’. They also issued a joint statement with China, with both parties pledging ‘to exercise self-restraint’, including refraining from ‘inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner’.

Image result for ASEAN Leaders at Laos Summit 2016

To be fair, the foreign ministers’ statement is noticeably strong, implicitly aiming at China’s ongoing reclamation activities. But the joint statement is a bit disingenuous, given the PCA decision that none of the Spratly features legally constitute islands. The recent Vientiane talks also stopped short of targeting the core issues. For instance, it adopted the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, or CUES, for naval forces, despite the fact that paramilitary forces such as coastguards lead much of the maritime assertiveness, especially from China.

At heart is the question of whether ASEAN is able to coalesce vis-à-vis China when its largest member, Indonesia, is fixated on its domestic front. Amid budget cuts, trickling foreign investment, and a depreciating rupiah, the economy is what every sensible Indonesian would care about first and foremost. Simply put, Indonesia just doesn’t feel it has the luxury of options, at least for now. Sweet talking is enough to persuade Jakarta about the prospect of Beijing funding Widodo’s maritime vision. Jakarta doesn’t want the South China Sea to overshadow its relationship with Beijing.

Yet Indonesia’s present approach towards China isn’t unique. Once the most confrontational of all, the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte is now doing something similar. And then there’s Cambodia and Laos. Why should Indonesia confront Beijing when others in ASEAN appear either unwilling or unable to do so?

Indonesia likes to portray itself as first among equals in ASEAN. But it’s fundamentally wrong to conceive of ASEAN as a flock of sheep with Indonesia as the shepherd. Every ASEAN nation has its own set of interests and priorities with Beijing, which has become more influential in dictating their South China Sea policies.

Consequently, a wait-and-see approach towards China appears to have prevailed in ASEAN. They ‘wait’ until the other makes the first move towards China, and ‘see’ how favourable China’s response is before making the next move. No ASEAN country is willing to lay all their cards on the table as a precursor to crafting a concerted strategy towards China. And it’s wishful thinking to argue that Indonesia could make that happen.

Indonesia’s ASEAN leadership isn’t about forging a unity among discords, much less building coalitions. Rather, it’s about cobbling together a consensus from the lowest common denominator or low hanging fruit. If and when discords do arise, at most Indonesia tries to mediate or facilitate rather than enforce consensus. Indonesia to ASEAN is not what the United States is to NATO or even what India is to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

Indonesia’s diplomatic aura reveals more strategic weakness than geopolitical dominance. In short, its ‘big country’ syndrome belies a middle power capacity trying to project itself globally through the use of diplomatic apparatus rather than, say, military expeditionary forces.

Asking Indonesia to lead ASEAN on the South China Sea would be too much and too soon. It’s too much because Indonesia doesn’t think of its leadership as such, and too soon because it doesn’t have the capacity to do so — at least not yet. This is why Indonesia sticks to the Declaration of Conduct and the Code of Conduct — because that’s what it can realistically do. If China decides to disregard international law, intimidate its neighbours or continue reclaiming the ocean, there’s little Indonesia can do through ASEAN.

Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto is an Indonesian Presidential PhD Scholar with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University.

8 thoughts on “Indonesia’s ASEAN leadership lost at sea

  1. Rightway or not. All Asean nations have tons of Chinese who could talk to China and would detest what Emperor Xi is doing. But, for some reasons, all local Asean elites were too greedy of Chinese yuan, or simply they all think got this paper tiger grok! 易 means change and simple at the same time. But all ASEAN ruling parties are both kiasu and kiasi at the same time.

    How come noone ask Uncle Like his thought on China’s nine dashbline?

    Mozi’s sign still applies too all small nations in Asean. As Tibet could be part of today’s China, what is so different of today’s ASEAN nations.

  2. Katasayang, Mozi died useless, diseased and penniless 2.5 centuries ago. Why did Mohism expire against competing Taoism, Confucianism and Legalism?

    A clue can be gleaned from the writings (or spamming) by Tai Ngong of cold Cesium-Clock-fusion-Quantum computer-space-station fame. Hydrophobia, being a classic symptom of ??.

    I really don’t understand this ‘First Among Equals’ wishful Indonesian ASEAN thingy. They just don’t have the wherewithal – diplomatically or otherwise. Even quarrels with their southern neighbor Oz, ends up in tetany and slobbery.

    In this SCS FUBAR, the unaffected kiasi-kisu Singaporeans should take the lead – but they too are chickenshit. Too many China dolls will throw themselves off the balcony of HDB flats, i guess.

    Of course Malaysia, being in the UNSC mustn’t say anything as long as PRC continues to advance hard cash for MO1’s embezzlement benefits, ya?

  3. @CLF: Mohism came out from Confucianism. Confucianism came out from Taoism (which at that time has yet to be named). Mohism coined the term ‘fa’ -> as a model, or method which gives rise to Legalism. Mohism lives on. It paints a conservative ideal of reverting to simplicity, embracing the ideal of peace and love, with a liberal willingness to protect the least and weakest with force.

    I am not sure Mohism died. It is merely called liberalism today. But, it is an ideal stayed on from generation to generations across many culture.

    Malaysia loves grand-building. The tallest, the first, and the extravagant. Those were the reasons Mohism pointed out to their contemporaries that would bring down all of these nations. Today, South-East Asian nations, especially Malaysia, would succumb to similar disruption which would bring us down.

  4. Mohism didn’t come ex-nihilo thru’ Mozi, but from a series of philosophies that are antithetical to it’s basic tenets? How did that happen? Quantum tunneling?

    Goodness, i never knew that. Can’t read pictographs for nuts, beyond 鸭 (duck) and 蛋 (egg). That’s the score i got in standard six Chinese, all those decades ago..

    The Greeks had Socrates-Plato-Aristotle, after the earlier Pythagoras, Xenophanes, the Milesians, Eleatics, Sophists etc. And the Chinapek only had 1 progenitor. Confucius? No wonder we are confusedly screwed..

    There is actually a mention of Dao in the West, if i read the translations of Tao Te’ Ching, right? But Laozi may or may not have existed? Most probably not and was a figment of Chinese Folk Traditions which have a propensity of creating deities, ex nihilo.

  5. @CLF .. what I have said has merely came from writings of Hu Shih close to a century ago. Thinking through, there is little reason to disagree with him. But, of course, at times, does it matter. Nonetheless, Emperor Xi really dig Confucianism recently. It is best for more to brush up on these thinking. I am finding it quite enlightening, much more than that I had previously thought. Seed of liberal thoughts were always there very early on. Not realizing this, and not talking about these things is a sure way to allow China to implode again.

  6. /// katasayang September 18, 2016 at 7:26 am
    Malaysia loves grand-building. The tallest, the first, and the extravagant. ///

    Some years back, Malaysia wanted to build the world’s tallest airport control tower. Next, I suppose they would want to invent the world’s biggest computer IC chip.

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