The superpower competition for power and influence between the United States and China will likely profoundly impact Asian politics and security in the 21st century. Already, while Chinese economic and military might are on the rise, emboldening its policymaking on issues like the South China Sea, the US has taken countermeasures to protect its regional interests. Washington has put into motion its so-called “pivot to Asia,” which has enhanced America’s economic, military and diplomatic investment to the region.
This is the regional environment that Indonesia is situated in nowadays and likely for the foreseeable future. Caught in the middle of this superpower competition, however, doesn’t mean that Indonesia is in a hopeless or unpredictable situation. It has a number of strategic options at its disposal.
This reality, let’s call it strategic flexibility, is the result of two things. First, over the last two decades, Jakarta has fairly consistently pursued a foreign policy of “friends with no enemies.” And second, Indonesia’s history isn’t marred by heated regional rivalries and enmity. As a result, Indonesia hasn’t strategically backed itself into a corner, limiting its options and choices. More to the point, it doesn’t have the foreign policy obstacles that countries like Japan and South Korea currently face.
Instead, at this point, Indonesia has relative freedom to make and implement the foreign policies it wants. In this sense, Indonesia’s comity and friendliness with foreign countries has served it well.
As it stands right now, to cope with the superpower competition while protecting its national interests, Indonesia has five broad strategic options.
Indonesia can remain neutral and on the sidelines, preferring to stay out of any confrontation between Beijing and Washington. Indonesia can choose sides, opting for either China or America. Or it can act as a mediator or troubleshooter between China and the US, actively attempting to keep superpower relations smooth and conflict-free. Also, by working to write the rules of the road in Asia, thereby shaping the regional environment in which China and America interact, Indonesia can serve as an indirect conduit between both powers. And finally, Indonesia can try to play the superpowers off each other as a way to maximize the economic, security, political and diplomatic concessions it receives from both Washington and Beijing.
Picking sides and playing China and America off each other are, by far, the two riskiest options. Should Jakarta decide to align itself with Washington or Beijing, the side that Indonesia didn’t pick will be angry, causing fraying and disruptions in relations with that side.
Moreover, if Indonesia does choose sides, this may have serious long-term consequences.
For instance, if Indonesia picks the side that eventually loses the superpower struggle in the region, its position and prestige within Asia will be severely compromised. Additionally, Indonesia could select a side that breaks mutually agreed upon deals, including security ones, or even turns aggressive toward it — something that’s not preposterous given the history of superpower behavior. To protect the country’s interests, Indonesia would likely have to cozy up to the power it once scorned, and that power, under these circumstances, would have enormous leverage over it.
For now, Indonesia has decided to act as an indirect conduit between China and the US. It has focused on working through and strengthening Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreements and bodies, all of which provide a framework to standardize and regulate the behavior of countries residing in and engaging with Southeast Asia. Most notably, Indonesia, under the leadership of Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, has been very active in attempting to craft a code of conduct to manage the various disputes and conflicts in the South China Sea.
Such an approach is good, in that it allows Indonesia to play a low-cost productive role in Asian security affairs. But it is also safe and too conservative. It doesn’t allow Indonesia to exert directly a peaceful influence on Sino-American relations — relations that are reasonably fine right now, but could quickly turn hostile and bloody. To do so, Jakarta would have to take on a more active leadership role in the region. Given that officials in Jakarta see Indonesia as an emerging leader and power in the region, why not begin the process of shouldering more regional responsibilities?
In my view, one way to do this is to transition toward serving as a regional mediator and peace broker, an unbiased independent party striving to diffuse conflicts and settle disputes. This would be a time and labor-intensive responsibility, one that includes, among other things, frequent shuttle diplomacy, brainstorming sessions, ego massaging and communication-strengthening between countries.
As a regional peace broker, Indonesia could attempt to work on all outstanding disputes and conflicts in Asia, including delving into the knotty Korean hostilities, but place special attention on Sino-American ties. The payoff for such a role for Indonesia would likely be very big.
In particular, it would enhance worldwide respect for Indonesia. It would cultivate an image of Indonesia as an effective diplomatic problem solver. It would firmly place the country on the road to regional leadership, perhaps to the point that others begin to see Indonesia as the indispensable actor in the region. And keep in mind all of these things, in turn, could very well create economic, security, and political benefits.
Brad Nelson is president and co-founder of Center for World Conflict and Peace, a research organization specializing in international politics and security.