The East Asian region will remain peaceful and stable well into the future, despite speculation of escalating tension between Beijing and Washington over the latter’s plan to boost its military presence in the Pacific, Indonesia’s defense minister said.
In an interview with the Jakarta Globe, Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro said US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s remarks during a recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore should not be interpreted as a signal of renewed regional tension.
Countries in the region have adopted “a new security paradigm under which we have moved from hard power to soft power, and now to diplomatic power,” he said after the dialogue last week.
He cited the case of the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March 2010 by a North Korean torpedo. At the time there were fears the incident could spark open war, but the countries involved in six-party talks managed to reach a peaceful resolution.
Purnomo said another example was the series of border clashes between Thailand and Cambodia in 2009. The tensions, which had threatened to develop into war, were eventually dissipated after Indonesia stepped in to mediate a dialogue at the request of the United Nations.
The dispute occupying the region stems from overlapping claims by China and six other countries to islands in the South China Sea. Purnomo said he believed this would not lead to war because the claimants all realized they stood to lose more than they gain through armed conflict.
Rule of engagement
Purnomo said a mechanism to guide the conduct of claimants was created in 2002, when the region’s key ministers adopted a non-binding declaration of conduct.
To make it a binding pact, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations spent 10 years formulating the guidelines for a code of conduct up until last year. It is now working on the “key elements” that include the “rule of engagement” to govern individual countries’ behavior.
With such a mechanism in place, Purnomo said, countries in the East Asian region and their dialogue partners would be bound by a common interest and commitment to ensure the region’s peace.
He said that when asked at the Shangri-La Dialogue how Indonesia managed to maintain strong ties with both China and the United States, he echoed President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s remarks at the opening of the meeting: “Indonesia will continue to have zero enemies and a million friends” in implementing its free and active foreign policy.
Yudhoyono also called for deeper understanding and implementation of regionalism, a new strategic culture and a new geopolitics of cooperation in shaping the architecture for a durable peace.
Purnomo said that instead of relying on hard military power, nations in the region have turned more to diplomatic power.
China and the United States would not deliberately stoke tensions, he argued, because that would jeopardize their own interests in the region and beyond.
During their recent meeting in Cambodia that preceded the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asean defense ministers and their dialogue partners agreed on this paradigm shift and established a cooperation framework to tackle five major policy areas.
The United States and Indonesia led the team to deal with counterterrorism; Japan and Singapore handled military medicine; Malaysia and Australia tackled maritime security; New Zealand and the Philippines handled peacekeeping operations; and Vietnam and China dealt with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
During the Cambodia meeting, the defense ministers of China and the Philippines held friendly talks to identify how to cooperate better — contrary to assumptions that they would avoid each other due to the South China Sea dispute.
Purnomo said this cooperation testified to Indonesia’s belief that even though some flash points were unsettled, countries in the Asian region would no longer fall back on the old paradigm of military power in the new globalized world marked by increased interdependence among nations.
Military power is seen as a leverage for diplomatic endeavors, Purnomo said, but the development of each nation’s military must go hand in hand with its economic progress. In that light, the development of US and Chinese military might in an area that is of key economic interest to both is not surprising, he added.
“They can do so because they have the money for it,” he said. “And military presence creates a sense of security for economic development.”
He added that although the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) had not been significantly strengthened during the last 13 years due to budget constraints, there would be a need to “secure the national interest” as the economy continued to grow.
“But when Indonesia modernizes its arsenal,” he added, “it’s solely for the sake of securing our sovereignty and territorial integrity. We have never had any expansionist ambitions.”