Jessica Brown, Sydney | Mon, 07/04/2011
Chastened by its failure to successfully negotiate a settlement in the recent border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia, Indonesia has been noticeably silent on the recent explosion of tensions in the South China Sea.
Only a few months ago, Indonesia was positioning itself as an ‘honest broker’ in the South China Sea dispute. Now it appears much more circumspect. Jakarta knows that only through wider regional discussions, which must include the US, can the quarrels be resolved.
Indonesia took up the rotating chair of ASEAN at the beginning of the year with a great sense of confidence. The largest country in the region, with a booming economy and flourishing — if messy — democracy, Jakarta saw the ASEAN chair as a good opportunity to solidify its credentials as the region’s de facto leader.
In January Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa signaled that the long-running series of territorial disputes in South China Sea, which had again flared up during 2010, would be a key focus of Indonesia’s diplomatic efforts.
Since then, Natalegawa has been distracted by another territorial spat closer to home.
Following an outbreak of fighting between Thailand and Cambodia around the disputed Preah Vihear temple in February, which resulted in 10 deaths, Natalegawa flew to Bangkok and Phnom Penh attempting to negotiate a solution.
In its capacity as ASEAN chair, Jakarta agreed to send unarmed Indonesian observers to monitor the situation on both sides of the border.
Yet despite months of frantic diplomatic effort, including a crisis meeting on the sidelines of the annual ASEAN Summit in Jakarta in May, the dispute remains unsolved. In spite of Indonesia’s efforts at a regionally brokered solution, Cambodia has now taken its case to the International Court of Justice.
If ASEAN can’t resolve a territorial quarrel between its own member states, can it expect to broker a solution in the high-stakes South China Sea?
The Cambodia-Thailand border dispute is a reminder of the limited role that ASEAN can realistically play in assuring regional security.
The only real option available to ASEAN in the South China Sea disputes, and to Indonesia as its chair, is to continue encouraging the US to play an active role in the region to counterbalance to China’s growing weight.
This does not mean ASEAN is irrelevant. China maintains that the South China Sea disputes should be settled on a bilateral basis. But the ASEAN states involved – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei – recognize that only by acting in concert can they hope to stand up to their powerful northern neighbor.
Strength in numbers has long been ASEAN’s raison d’être. Formed in 1967 at the height of the Cold War, the founding five members thought that sticking together would give them the best chance of standing up to the circling superpowers.
A pact of non-interference in each other’s internal security affairs enabled them to put their own animosities aside. But it also meant that security cooperation always lagged well behind economic integration. It has been through the US-led ‘hub and spokes’ system of bilateral relationships, rather than formal multilateral agreements, that security cooperation in Southeast Asia has largely taken place. ASEAN’s key role has been to bring the major players together.
This should again be its role in the South China Sea.
Indonesia, as ASEAN chair, could push for the issue to be resolved in a wider ASEAN-led multilateral forum such as the East Asia Summit or the ASEAN Regional Forum, where the presence of the USA might force China to moderate its behavior. Jakarta understands that keeping both China and the USA inside the ASEAN tent is crucial.
Last year Indonesia welcomed US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s offer to mediate the dispute, made in response to China’s claim (which it has since backed away from) that Beijing would now consider the South China Sea a ‘core interest’ on par with Taiwan and Tibet.
ASEAN’s subsequent invitation for America (along with Russia) to join the East Asia Summit was widely interpreted as an attempt to dilute China’s growing influence in the grouping, giving the Southeast Asian states more bargaining power in areas such as the South China Sea.
Jakarta’s failure to broker a deal between Cambodia and Thailand is a reminder that settling territorial quarrels is not ASEAN’s strong suite. It is a cautionary warning against institutional overreach. ASEAN is not the best forum in which to tackle the South China Sea disputes.
Where ASEAN can play a role is in bringing the major regional powers together, and giving the smaller Southeast Asian states a bigger voice than they could muster alone.
Indonesia’s recent silence on the issue suggests it has realized this.
The writer is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) in Sydney and author of Jakarta’s Juggling Act, published by the CIS