Keynoting a conference on Indonesia in Washington DC, Foreign Minister Marty M. Natalegawa recently proposed that the countries of the Indo-Pacific region work towards a treaty of friendship and cooperation.
A treaty is a sacred trust. Once ratified, it has the force of international law and governs certain fundamental aspects of relations between states.
If, for instance, a treaty precludes war, a big country signatory can’t just swat a small country signatory no matter how nasty their quarrel — unless it’s ready to suffer enormous political damage.
To make a treaty work, you must have a warehouse of patience. And an appetite for exertion.
But the rewards of a good treaty are huge — look at the peace dividends that the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation has yielded to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
It isn’t everyday that a foreign minister proposes a treaty with as vast a geographic scope as this one. The region that straddles the Indian and Pacific Oceans has a total population of 3 billion people. It boasts the world’s largest democracies. Of its 30 countries, five are among the world’s 20 largest economies.
The likely first signatories to the projected treaty are the participants to the East Asia Summit: The 10 Asean states, their three northeast Asian partners — China, Japan and South Korea — plus India, Australia and New Zealand, Russia and the United States.
Perhaps China can bring its naughty protege, North Korea, into the treaty? Go on, dream.
Although the proposal is ingenuously audacious, it’s a good bet it will prosper. I have heard nothing but endorsement for it — some keen, some cautious.
US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, who was in Jakarta for bilateral talks a few days ago, strongly backed the idea during her dialogue with Indonesian students.
There’s probably no working draft of the proposed treaty yet, but you can already make out its contours.
Marty speaks of a legally binding commitment by states in the region “to build confidence, to solve disputes by peaceful means, and to promote a concept of security that is all encompassing.”
The Indo-Pacific treaty, he says, will be “not unlike the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia.”
It will “provide flesh and strengthen the commitment already expressed by the East Asia Summit participating countries through the Principles for Mutually Beneficial Relations agreed to at the East Asia Summit in Bali in 2011.”
The charm of the idea is that once it gets going, nobody will want to be left out. It will be the bus that nobody wants to miss. Not even China will snub it. In this regard, it’s reminiscent of a similar magnet two decades ago, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation: So many economies in the Asia-Pacific wanted to be in that forum, a moratorium on admitting new participants had to be declared.
Today, Asean and China are negotiating towards a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. I remain optimistic that the negotiations will be successfully concluded. But if China takes its time negotiating, I won’t be surprised. After all, it won’t be any skin off China’s nose if the COC never sees daylight.
And while there’s no COC, it can go merrily all over the South China Sea tooting its gunboat diplomacy. But you can’t trifle with an Indo-Pacific treaty that way: There are several other big boys involved. If the idea gets traction — and if, aside from Asean, the United States, Russia and India join the treaty, as well as Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand — you can bet your last devalued euro that China will give it all the attention it deserves.
The proposed Indo-Pacific treaty is not just an idea whose time has come. It’s a course of action that the time and the regional situation demand.
Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. He is also an English-language consultant for the Indonesian government. The views expressed here are his own.