The recent Jakarta International Defense Dialogue put Indonesia on the map in more ways than one. It confirmed Indonesia’s effective role as a convener of international discussion on maritime security issues — just as the Komodo naval exercise that was launched on Sunday will reinforce Indonesia’s role as a hub for practical security collaboration.
The defense dialogue was also the first international, government-sponsored security conference to term the Asian strategic environment as the Indo-Pacific region. In their speeches at the dialogue, Indonesian Vice President Boediono and Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro were absolutely right to define the region this way.
This captures the growing economic and security links between the Pacific and Indian oceans and the and geographic centrality of Indonesia and the Southeast Asian sea lanes in a distinctly maritime regional order. From cooperation against piracy off the coast of Somalia, to the multi-nation search for Flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean, there is growing evidence of East Asian nations having to grapple with security challenges in unfamiliar waters.
The Indo-Pacific concept also puts Indonesia on the same page as Australia in the way it views the changing region. This provides a foundation for efforts to repair and advance relations between the two democracies after recent troubles. Last year, Australia officially defined its region as the Indo-Pacific in the then-Labor government’s Defense White Paper, and the Conservative government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott is maintaining this perspective.
No longer does Australia see its security challenges and opportunities as concentrated narrowly in East Asia or the South Pacific. Like Indonesia, Australia is a two-ocean power, and is seeking to build a partnership with an emerging India. Australia also welcomes an Indonesia that is growing stronger, including as a sea power.
At the Jakarta dialogue, there was a striking similarity of views among Indonesian, Australian, Japanese and Indian strategic analysts and policy makers on the need for greater cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. Avenues for this include high-level diplomatic discussions — such as at the East Asia Summit — and day-to-day interaction among navies.
At the same time, Chinese delegates asked questions at the forum about whether the Indo-Pacific is a way of defining Asia that downplays the role and rights of their country. Such questions are based on a misconception about the Indo-Pacific idea. Far from excluding China, it is deeply inclusive of Asia’s largest economy and most powerful state. Indeed, the origins of the modern Indo-Pacific strategic system lie precisely in the growth of China as a great trading nation and its reliance on the Indian Ocean sea lanes for energy and exports.
A million Chinese now live and work in Africa. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s first visit abroad in that role was to India. China is India’s largest trading partner. In February, a Chinese navy taskforce transited the Sunda Strait to conduct exercises, including combat simulation, in the Indian Ocean. New media reports suggest a prolonged patrol by a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine in the Indian Ocean late last year. And China is seeking to enhance its status as an associate or participant in the Indian Ocean’s various diplomatic forums, including the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, a meeting of naval chief’s hosted in recent days by the Australian navy in Perth.
These are all reminders that the map of Asia is changing. The Indo-Pacific can best be understood as a maritime super region centered on Southeast Asia, arising from the expanding interests and reach of China, India and other growing Asian economies, including Indonesia. Of course, such a vast region cannot be dominated by any single power. As Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has argued, in calling for an Indo-Pacific treaty, security across this grand region can be achieved only through cooperation.
In the years ahead, peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific will require shared understandings about China’s legitimate interests in the Indian Ocean, but also India’s rights as a Pacific Ocean power. A stable regional future will also require a widespread recognition that the South China Sea, part of the core Indo-Pacific, is everybody’s business. Solutions to regional security tensions that are based on unilateralism or coercion will end in tears.
Yet the sheer scale of the Indo-Pacific is such that not every small and disparate country, from Madagascar to Marshall Islands, can be expected to contribute greatly to solving regional security problems. So the third way is needed, a set of what might be called ‘minilateral’ arrangements for practical security cooperation among a small number of key players.
What are the principles choosing these partners? The way forward involves self-selection with common interests to protect, capabilities to offer, and a willingness to craft workable rules and understandings and then play by them. For example, it would make great sense for Indonesia, India and Australia to deepen their security dialogue on maritime issues, moving eventually to arrangements for shared sea-surveillance and sharing of data.
When their exceptionally difficult task is over, the lead countries involved in the search for and salvage of MH370 might also work together to share lessons in search and rescue and coordination of aerial missions. With the expansion of the US Marines’ presence in Australia’s Northern Territory, the time may be coming for the Australians and Americans to involve other Indo-Pacific partners in training for disaster relief and other kinds of operations. Indonesia would be a logical choice for a third partner.
Such training, and other forms of minilateral cooperation, might sometimes include China, sometimes not. Military confidence-building measures alone are not going to eradicate strategic mistrust. China should certainly be invited to a wider range of military cooperative activities in the region. But for as long as tensions and uncertainties persist around China’s growing power and its assertiveness against other states, Beijing’s protestations about other countries’ security partnerships will need to be taken with a grain of Indo-Pacific salt.
Rory Medcalf is director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. This article is based on his remarks at this year’s Jakarta International Defense Dialogue.