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US Rebalancing Policy in South East Asia and Indonesia’s Position

United States Vice President Mike Pence’s recent visit to Asia could be seen as the first official Asian policy of Trump Administration since his inauguration as US President. In his visit, Pence also met with several Asian leaders like Japan’s Prime Minister Sinzo Abe, Indonesian President’s Joko Widodo, South Korea and also Australian leader Malcolm Turnbull. The visit is a part of US strategy to rebalance its position in Asia Pacific especially in countering China’s growing influence in the region.

There were several key issues that Pence emphasizes during his visit. North Korea’s provocative nuclear weapon testing, Reassuring ties with US allies in the region, Trade issues as well as concerns over China’s growing military presence in the disputed South China Sea.

It is also important to consider that during his visit in Asia, Pence was ‘accompanied’ by a large Navy fleet (US Pacific Command) with the carrier USS Carl Vinson being the highlight of the entourage. The display of US military strength combined with statement made by Vice President Pence that the US will always safeguard its allies should be seen as a clear statement that the Trump’s administration would consider every available option in ensuring its interests in Asia Pacific, and that the US will still remain as hegemon in the region.

One of Trump’s administration strategies in rebalancing US position in Asia Pacific is to engage regional multilateral institutions and one of them is ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nation). As a sub-region of Asia Pacific, South East Asia is home to ten countries where some of it (Malaysia, Philippine, Brunei Darussalam and Vietnam) are claimant states in the disputed South China Sea.

The South China Sea has been one of many US concerns in Asia Pacific due to the increasing Chinese military presence albeit International Court ruling that China’s claim over the troubled water is illegal. China has been claiming the South China Sea as parts of its territory according to an ancient map that serves as a basis of its policy named as The Nine Dashed Line.

The policy is intercepting Malaysia, Philippine, Brunei Darussalam and Vietnam’s territory and exclusive economic zones. The ongoing dispute has led to an International Court ruling that bans China from claiming the area and Beijing’s policy has been more and more assertive ever since. Continuing its plan in building military structure in manmade islands stretched in the South China Sea, China’s military presence in the area has also increased. The situation has led to growing concerns of conflicts between claimants. More over the Nine Dashed Line policy is part of a bigger strategy called One Belt One Road initiative.

A strategy that would allow China to dominantly grasp all of the economic potentials in the region[1] and certainly could challenge US influence in Asia Pacific. Thus, South East Asia is strategically too valuable for the US to let loose and South China Sea issue is a perfect entrance for the US rebalancing strategy in Asia. The US cannot risks of losing its influence in the region, and has been actively engaging ASEAN following Mike Pence visit.


[1] South China Sea is strategically surrounded by 10 ASEAN countries, has the potential of 11 billion barrels of oil reserve and 190 trillion cubic feet of gas reserve, 10% of global fishery needs located in South China Sea and a total of 5 trillion US Dollars a year in trade route. China’s economic initiatives called OBOR (One Belt One Road) plans to re-establish the ancient ‘Silk Route’. Connecting Asia, Europe, Africa and Arabian Peninsula in a major trade route which its claims would be beneficial for countries involved. The disputed South China Sea lies in the middle of the planned OBOR route and shall paved a new strategic trade route all the way from East Asia down trough the existing Malacca Straits and connects to Africa and Arabian Peninsula.

Lacking success in regional multilateral approach, China prefers bilateral approach trough economic diplomacy to each ASEAN members. This is because in the past China has been troubled in understanding ASEAN voice over the Codes of Conduct in South China Sea. Trump’s administration has realized this. It also understood that China’s rapid infrastructure investment as part of its economic diplomacy in South East Asia during US financial crisis has changes the nature of some of its once reliable allies such as the Philippine.

Under President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, Philippine has made a stunning reversal compares to its predecessors as it moves closer to China rather than maintaining its close ties with the US. This can be seen in recent statement made by President Duterte regarding his demand that the US should empty Subic military base within two years. Subic military base has been the landmark of US – Philippine traditional alliance as well as a symbol of US influence in the region.

Statements from ASEAN leaders regarding the South China Sea during the recent ASEAN Summit in Manila has also softened and none complaints about the militarization’s of manmade islands in the disputed area. It is likely that China’s economic diplomacy has been beneficial after all and it is obvious that China tries to lean on ASEAN members to protect its interests. For ASEAN countries the question has been always about choosing between money from China, or protection from US.

This would means that US rebalancing strategy needs more than just a visit and a military strength display. It needs a consistent diplomacy to build trust and confidence along with trade and investment improvement, also dialogue to reassure long time strategic partnership with key players in the region. And it appears that it is what the Trump’s administration had finally realized and planned to do.

However since its relations with Philippine has gone sour for the time being, it needs a ‘new partner’ in South East Asia in countering China’s growing influence. At this point Indonesia appears to be the one that US tries to lobby and seek support from in rebalancing its position in South East Asia. The choosing of Indonesia as the one and only ASEAN country visited by US Vice President Mike Pence is no coincidence. It is decided with careful calculations. There are several arguments for this:

  1. As founding member of the ASEAN, Indonesia is perceived as an emerging regional power with global interest. Being the largest Muslim populated country in the world and also the third world largest democracy, Indonesia has been a close partner of US during former President Yudhoyono’s period in maintaining promotion of democracy and interfaith dialogue. Culturally both countries shares similarities in which its societies comprises of a diverse population. US realize that albeit Yudhoyono’s successor current President Joko Widodo political platform prefers stronger relation with China in terms of economic investment, he still have to carefully balanced his country’s foreign policy to not leaning too much to China. The Indonesian constitution mandates the country to remain independent in pursuing its national interests rather than taking sides. And US sees Indonesia as an ambivalent/pragmatic emerging regional power in the region. Thus, a re-strengthening relations with Indonesia is what likely to be more possible for the US in order to rebalance its strategic interests in South East Asia.
  1. Having economically tied to China, as a non-claimant state in the South China Sea, Indonesia is struggling to safeguard its national borders from China’s assertiveness especially around the resourceful Natuna Islands where incidents between the two countries have occurred severally in the past. President Joko Widodo is working hard to ensure his people that he will not trade Indonesia’s sovereignty with China’s infrastructure investment. Domestically President Joko Widodo’s policies in cooperating with China have sparked strong criticism. Last year he made a quite strong message to China onboard a navy warship following border incidents. Soon after, the Indonesian military held massive war exercises in Natuna Islands.
  1. Most of ASEAN countries reacted to China’s foreign policy with careful gestures. Embracing the investment that China offers, whilst at the same time anxiously strengthening its military capabilities trying to keep pace with China. Indonesia’s defense budget in 2015 is bigger than those of Malaysia’s, Thailand’s and Vietnam’s. Although reduction was made on 2017’s budget, President Joko Widodo’s administration focus is on manufacturing Indonesia’s own equipment and weapons have began to showed progress.
  1. In the past (until 1990’s) US influence in the region has been strong. Indonesia as dominant power in ASEAN led the region worked closely with US in deterring China’s influence which related to US campaign to blockade the spread of Communism in South East Asia. As the world now moves towards new era of multilateralism, China’s status has begun to shift slowly from hostile to potential economic partner. To keep ASEAN in balance, the US appears to be ‘needing’ Indonesia’s leadership and experience once again to counter China’s influence in ASEAN trough Philippine.

The arguments explained above are more likely to serves as primary consideration for US (under Trump’s administration) in reassuring its relations with middle power like Indonesia and President Joko Widodo needs to be careful in dealing with this new US policy so that it will not be trapped in power politics between China and US in the future.

In this critical times of geopolitical changes in Asia, It is more wise for Indonesia to be consistent with its ‘free and active’ foreign policy, and  preserving the balance of opportunities presented as results of bilateral relations with US as well as with China. At the same time perhaps President Joko Widodo can be more active as regional leader in ASEAN promoting a more stable, peaceful and secure South East Asia in the wake of a new geopolitical order.

Written by: Tide Aji Pratama, M.Si A lecturer at University of Jakarta (UNIJA) And Fellow Researcher at Pengkajian Strategis Kebangsaan (PASKAS)