Indonesia’s role in Asia’s problematic but promising future

The world’s economic centre of gravity is moving towards Asia; so is the burden of its strategic legacy. This dual recognition is essential if Asians are to make the best of what the times have in store for them.

Published on Oct 25, 2014 5:30 AM | By Purnomo Yusgiantoro

The world’s economic centre of gravity is moving towards Asia; so is the burden of its strategic legacy. This dual recognition is essential if Asians are to make the best of what the times have in store for them.

According to the OECD’s Economic Outlook for South-east Asia, China and India 2014, the region’s prospects remain robust over the medium term, anchored by a steady rise in domestic demand. The OECD uses the term “Emerging Asia” to bring South-east Asia, China and India into a common economic paradigm, a classification that correctly reflects the position of three economic powerhouses at the heart of Asia’s economic prospects.

Yet, when it comes to strategy, China, India and South-east Asia hardly belong to the same security domain. Instead, relations between Beijing and New Delhi are marked by underlying strategic distrust in spite of a tremendous upsurge in bilateral trade. That said, a recent visit by President Xi Jinping to India has improved relations between two countries. They are members of Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), which could become a new region of influence in the global economy.

South-east Asia, a buffer region between China and India, intends to have good relations with both rising powers. But can this be achieved or sustained if the two move apart? Will South-east Asian countries be forced to choose sides? Will the region’s strategic coherence, achieved incrementally since the end of the Cold War, survive sudden pulls in opposite directions?

What would or should be Indonesia’s response to such a situation? As South-east Asia’s largest power, Asean’s lynchpin nation and an Asian middle power, what should and could it do to ensure that the region is not split between the contending rise of the two Asian powers?

Extrapolate from even this relatively simple scenario and the full complexity of the Asian situation will come into view.

China’s rise has complicated its relations with the United States, while its troublesome relations with Japan would force Japan to shift from self-defence to normal defence.

In the South China Sea, China is in disputes with four of the ten Asean countries: the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam. Two countries, Vietnam and the Philippines, have experienced open incidents with Chinese in the disputed area.

At the same time, the Chinese are challenged by what they view as a strategy led by the United States to increase its sea power in the area in order to balance China’s power. The US has a long-standing alliance with Australia and Japan, and several Asean countries are determined to block the rise of a countervailing power. The terrain for playing out the conflict will be the Indo-Pacific, the strategic region constituted by and between the Indian and Pacific oceans.

In all this are echoes of the way in which major global power transitions were either marked by war – as with Germany in the two world wars – or achieved through domestic implosions, as in the case of the Soviet Union. This is the historical legacy with which Asians must contend, instead of believing that globalisation and democracy by themselves can prevent war. The first process is important for economic progress and the second for political development, but peace requires more than a combination of the two.

What peace in Asia requires is the ability of Asians to move beyond the legacy and possibilities of the Euro-American world order that has shaped international outcomes since the advent of colonialism in the 16th century. Asian economic, political and military elites must be able to reframe crucial national choices in the light of fresh mindsets that are not beholden to others’ histories.

It is not the intention to suggest a break with the West. Asians, like Africans or Latin Americans, are indebted to the West for major advances in economic and political civilisation from the Industrial Revolution to the French Revolution. Today, Asians use concepts such as free trade, soft borders, human rights and democracy, whose modern meanings have a distinctively Western provenance.

However, Western notions of world order, built on domination, should have no place in the Asian trajectory of change. Asia should not seek to dominate other regions, and Asian nations should not try to dominate one another. The warning by a strategic thinker that Europe’s past will be Asia’s future must be proved wrong – and only Asians can do that.

It is our experience that learned tomes and journal articles do not sway policy-makers as much as the sting of reality. Like leaders everywhere, Asian leaders will respond to circumstances when the evidence is overwhelming. But it might be too late by then to change those circumstances.

It is much better that Asians act while they still have time to steer themselves towards a future that reflects their common needs.

Indonesia must play a vigorous role in the process. Our free and active foreign policy makes us natural opponents of great-power hegemony or attempts to carve South-east Asia into spheres of influence. We are large enough to operate autonomously in the midst of great-power rivalry, but we are sober enough to know that we must never behave imperiously ourselves because that will generate coalitions against us. Not least, we are a self-consciously Asian nation that sees its future assured in a regional fraternity that transcends race and religion – just as our multicultural society and our Pancasila polity do at home.

I hope that these advantages will spur the new Administration in Jakarta, and its successors, to build on Indonesia’s strengths to make Asia a safer place.

After all, a safer Asia will make Indonesia more secure in turn.

The writer, the former Defence Minister of Indonesia, is a Professor of Economic Development at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB).