India - International Relations
Jakarta and Asian multipolarity
Vibhanshu Shekhar argues that any Asian power that wishes to enhance its strategic presence in Southeast Asia cannot do so without developing strong relationship with a resurgent and confident Indonesia. From New Delhi.
The continental geopolitics of Asia is marked by the new-evolving structures of relationships among the Asian powers – China, India and Japan – and their growing assertion for pre-eminence. They have shared centuries of historical and cultural relations as societies and kingdoms, filled with warmth, hostility and peaceful co-existence. In fact, one can discern both strands of hostility as well as harmony during the last seventy years of their engagement. These powers are not only celebrating their gradual loss of dependence on the West-centric intellectual, economic and strategic visions, but also asserting their global importance and pursuing strategic interests unilaterally, bilaterally or through a coalitional framework, depending on conveniences or complexities of a particular situation. In other words, the Asian power politics is gradually acquiring a semblance of multi-polarity, where each of these players is constantly trying to maximise its interests, and position itself on stronger footing in the prevailing strategic discourses. An important pointer in this direction is the nature and dynamics of strategic positioning of these powers.
First, each of these powers is re-defining their spheres of strategic influence and asserting their primacy in that zone. China has traditionally asserted its dominance in South and East China Sea, India in the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, and Japan has claimed its supremacy in the Western Pacific. However, it seems that none of these powers are any longer content with their traditional strategic domain. We have, of late, seen China’s growing maritime activities in the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, India’s increasing involvement in the Strait of Malacca and South China Sea and Japan’s new-found desire of expanding its maritime sphere of influence. As a result, a great power politics is taking shape with the Asian powers claiming and clamouring for similar strategic space, incrementally augmenting conflicts of interests and strategic rivalry.
Second, these powers have been engaged in normalising relations with their erstwhile rivals, strengthening economic and political engagement with countries having normal scale of relationship and also converting engagements into partnerships. India has already signed six such strategic partnerships with different countries in the Asia-Pacific. China, a much hated and an antagonistic player of the Cold War era, has revived and considerably strengthened its relationships with many countries in the region and also signed several strategic partnerships. Japan has exhibited similar trends. The main objective is to expand the widest possible their strategic constituencies in the continental politics.
China, a much hated and an antagonistic player of the Cold War era, has revived and strengthened its relationships with many countries in the region.
Third, there is an enormous rise in the power of China and continued balancing efforts against it by two powerful neighbours – Japan and India – to minimize the adverse fallout of China’s rise, given their acrimony with the former in the past. The balancing and counter-balancing games are being played out much more transparently in the geopolitical turf of maritime space and the ASEAN-driven multilateral cooperative processes. China faces insurmountable challenge from India in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, and from Japan in the East China Sea and western Pacific. However, these players have found it difficult to minimise China’s growing influence in the Southeast Asian maritime corridors stretching from South China Sea to the Strait of Malacca. While Japan wanted the inclusion of Australia, India and New Zealand within East Asia Summit in 2005, China found their inclusion as a threat to its interests within the Summit. In response to its diplomatic loss, China has focused its energy on concretising and consolidating the ASEAN+3 process at the cost of ASEAN+6 process. The inclusion of Russia and USA in the East Asia Summit and the formation of ASEAN+ Defence Ministerial Meeting (ADMM+) in 2010 are manifestation of similar strategic rivalry in the region.
Finally, as the great game among these three Asian players pans out, the continental geopolitics is witnessing the entry of the most important global player in the Asian game – USA. USA augmented its re-entry into the Asia-Pacific by deciding to become a member of East Asia Summit, signing a comprehensive partnership with Indonesia and sending its naval fleet for ‘interaction’ with the Vietnamese navy in South China Sea. With Obama’s recently concluded Asia visit the US took a definitive step towards exploring the fast-growing and industrialising Asian markets for the American goods and consolidating its strategic engagement with a coalition of countries which share one common concern – how to effectively moderate an enormous swell in the strategic and economic power of China. Interestingly, the visit reflected America’s depleting global influence and its desire to negotiate the relationship on an equal footing with the Asian powers. The US failed to convince China to depreciate its currency and the G-20 to follow its approach towards global currency management, signed a comprehensive partnership with Indonesia and expressed its desire of forging a strategic partnership as among equals in India.
In this multi-polar Asia, Southeast Asia has emerged as the focal point of strategic competition and Indonesia as a lynch-pin state. Any Asian power that wishes to enhance its strategic presence in Southeast Asia cannot do so without developing strong relationship with a resurgent economy, a confident democracy and the most powerful ASEAN player. Obama’s visit to the country in November 2010 has signalled the rise of Indonesia as an important variable in the US strategic calculations in the Asia-Pacific and acknowledged its growing indispensability for any multi-polar power structure emerging within the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific. Indonesia has regained its pre-eminence in the ASEAN-driven multilateral cooperative processes, which offer the best platform for strategic projections of these countries. Though it may be too early to predict the rise of Jakarta as a strategic pole, it can certainly tilt the balance in favour or against given its enormous strategic weight. Not to forget, Indonesia straddles over the Strait of Malacca through which majority of energy supplies to China and Japan passes.
Not to forget, Indonesia straddles over the Strait of Malacca through which majority of energy supplies to China and Japan passes.
The rise of Jakarta as a lynch-pin state has re-positioned the country as an important interlocutor in the ongoing strategic debate within continental geopolitics. Indonesia currently stares at two possibilities – bi-polar (USA and China) Asian security order and a multi-polar Asia with each Asian power forming its own axis of power. At the same time, the more fundamental question facing Indonesian foreign policy today is whether it should take sides in the new-evolving geopolitical equations in the continent or it should assert its own strategic ambitions and contributing, in the process, to the rise of an Asian Multipolarity.
Though Indonesia has developed strong economic linkages with China, the former continues to remain uncertain and suspicious towards China’s growing strategic influence in Asia and its greater strategic agenda in Southeast Asia. The South China Sea dispute that puts China at the loggerheads with four ASEAN countries – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – continues to affect China’s overall diplomatic standing in Southeast Asia and within ASEAN. Moreover, any alignment with China might disrupt Jakarta’s growing strategic engagement with two other Asian giants - India and Japan. At the same time, Indonesia continues to remain wary of the domestic backlash against growing alignment with the US. Though the US President, during his visit to Indonesia in November 2010 tried to win over the Indonesian Muslim constituency by speaking at the famous Ishtiqlal mosque in Jakarta, his gesture proved to be too little and too conspicuous.
In fact, Indonesia can ill-afford to join any anti-China Asian coalition for two fundamental reasons. First it does not look prudent to follow an overt antagonistic foreign policy approach in a globalised and integrated world against a rising global player. Second, Indonesia can not risk undermining its economic relations with China at a time when the country is on the path of economic recovery and the world is facing an economic crisis. China, over the years, has emerged as the one of the largest investors and trading partners. The country continues to focus on domestic economic and democratic consolidation before claiming a leadership role in the continent. On the other hand, the Asian geopolitics is undergoing the process of greater economic integration through a web of bilateral and multilateral FTAs, mergers and acquisitions, and assembly-line processes of production. In fact, these powers are moving towards a state of mutual economic interdependence, and either a continental level instability or an individual country-level economic vulnerability can trigger shock-wave across the continent, bringing the entire Asian story to the brink of disaster.
Therefore, highlighting the country’s own eclectic outlook and its current hedging strategy, Jakarta is poised to push Asia towards a multi-polar power structure. The evolving structure of multi-polarity offers the country an important opportunity to continue its leadership role within Southeast Asia that is gradually emerging as the main battleground in the eastern Asian hemisphere. Though the continental strategic equations hinge on the nature and dynamics of relationships between these powers, there exists a considerable degree of uncertainty as to how they are going to relate to each other since they are still rising and consolidating their strategic positions in Asia. The evolving multi-polarity enables Indonesia to effectively address three most pertinent issues facing the continental geopolitics – greater economic integration, growing prominence of great power politics in the continental geopolitics, and desperate efforts by the stakeholders to institutionalise the integrative processes and relations among the continental powers.