Jakarta. Indonesia should strengthen its role in Asean — the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — while at the same time navigating its relations with the United States and China carefully to avoid being squashed in the growing rivalry between the world's two great powers, foreign policy experts and diplomats said during a public forum in Jakarta on Monday (29/01).
"I think now we are facing potentially two belligerent superpowers [and] Indonesia needs to navigate very carefully... we cannot depend on either United States or China, because in the end they will pursue their own great power politics," executive director of Jakarta-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Philips Vermonte, said.
Philips said the US has shown it is more than serious about re-engaging with Southeast Asia, as evidenced by a series of visits from high-profile US officials to the region, including President Donald Trump himself, who attended the Asean and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summits last year.
The United States has been paying special attention to Indonesia, with Vice President Mike Pence visiting the country last April and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis just last week.
Soemadi Brotodiningrat, a former Indonesian ambassador to the United States, said bilateral relations between Indonesia and the United States have remained steadfast – shown by recent efforts to create more strategic partnerships and improve cooperation in defense – despite a change of administration that has earned the superpower a deluge of criticism from around the globe.
According to Soemadi, maintaining stability in the region will require Indonesia to stay close to the US, keep strong relations with China, while also taking the lead to strengthen Asean.
This should suit Indonesia’s foreign policy directions this year to focus more on the Indo-Pacific region and help build an inclusive regional architecture through Asean-led mechanisms.
The US National Security Strategy (NSS), published in December, also placed an emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region, portraying it explicitly as an area of geopolitical competition.
The document also mentioned Asean and APEC as "centerpieces" of the Indo-Pacific regional architecture.
According to Philips, Asean countries must avoid the potential for divisions in the organization, as suggested by a specific reference to the Philippines and Thailand as "allies" in the NSS.
"Asean was created specifically to keep the major powers at an equal distance," Philips said.
Indonesian Foreign Affairs Ministry's head of policy analysis and development, Siswo Pramono, said a lot of opportunities exist to step up cooperation with the US and China.
Indonesia already has strategic partnerships with both superpowers.
Indonesia, Siswo said, should avoid being seen as a reluctant partner of the US, China or other major powers in world politics.
Instead, it should be promoting active engagement with all of them, both bilaterally and multilaterally.
"This will be Indonesia's role, to host or provide them with a forum [to discuss issues]," Siswo said, adding that the annual East Asia Summit could be a perfect platform for this purpose.