Writing for The Diplomat magazine, scholar Sourabh Jyoti Sharma this year argued that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations must formulate a common policy on the Indian Ocean region as part of its future maritime strategy. By the same token, Indonesia can be said to have neglected its diplomacy towards this region.
Despite Indonesia’s membership of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) since its inception in 1995, this forum is yet to play an integral part in the country’s diplomatic endeavors.
President Joko Widodo’s maritime axis, if and when it comes into being, will only increase the strategic value of the Indian Ocean as a gateway for maritime communication, transport, trade and military routes.
Both IORA and its initiative, the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IORARC), could potentially become a strategic balancing force in the years ahead, if Indonesia is to pursue a more diversified foreign policy. The Indian Ocean community includes both India and Australia, both of which would be more than happy to forge closer ties with Indonesia.
So the Indian Ocean community is an alternative foreign policy axis to either Beijing or Washington. As major powers in the region, India, Indonesia and Australia have the definite potential to bring equilibrium to the larger Indo-Pacific arena by working more closely together through both IORA and IORARC.
Unfortunately, the IORA-IORARC is currently underdeveloped and underused as a regional forum. India made the effort to empower the association by donating $1 million to its Special Fund in 2011, when it was chair. However, much greater efforts by the member states are obviously required to make the forum count internationally.
Australia now holds the IORARC chair until 2015. By a happy coincidence, the chair will be taken up by Indonesia the following year. This will provide the Indonesian government an opportunity to lead the initiative to empower the forum further.
The fact that IORARC is underdeveloped also means there is plenty of room for bold and far-reaching initiatives by member states. If managed properly, with member states giving it their full support, IORARC even has the capacity to become a countervailing network for China’s latest Maritime Silk Road initiative.
Due to Indonesia’s own limited resources, it is highly unrealistic to continue to devote our diplomatic efforts to too many countries at the same time. It is therefore imperative that we choose the right strategic partners that will help ensure maximum benefits to ourselves while allowing us to raise our own international profile at the same time.
It is difficult to imagine this could be achieved with China as our main strategic partner. China, burdened by its own Middle-Kingdom complex, is unlikely to accept a more-or-less equal partnership with Indonesia. Its latest Maritime Silk Road scheme, sometimes dubbed as China’s Marshall Plan, clearly places China as the regional nexus.
Its overwhelmingly superior economic and military advantage alone should alert us to the danger of Indonesia being relegated to a subservient status. The recent disparity of treatment between the three Vietnamese illegal fishing boats that were seized and 22 Chinese fishing vessels points in this direction. The Vietnamese vessels have been sunk, while it remains unclear what is going to happen to the Chinese vessels.
Nevertheless, Indonesia, as all other nations on earth, cannot afford to ignore China altogether. It is palpably true that Indonesia needs Chinese investment and goodwill to forge ahead with its development plans.
The key here is balance, in the sense that Indonesia’s relations with other countries should provide opportunities and yet leave us not overly beholden to one power above the others. Cordial bilateral relations with China are essential for Indonesia. By the same token, we also needs to nurture our own relations with the other regional powers in the Indian Ocean community, notably India and Australia.
Out of the two, India is arguably the more acceptable strategic partner on the domestic front. India’s positive, albeit low-profile, image in the Indonesian media as well as resurging nostalgia about the Sukarno early years, mean that most Indonesians would not see an alliance with India as something suspicious.
Culturally, India’s soft power in the form of Bollywood movies and popular TV programs is something to which many Indonesians can relate. The Indian diaspora community in the country could also be instrumental in bolstering relations between the two nations.
Australia, on the other hand, has been perceived as a junior partner of the United States in the Anglosphere alliance. What most Indonesian nationalists allergic to the West forget, however, is that Australia has its own regional interests to safeguard: its relationship with Indonesia, and now increasingly with India, is of paramount importance.
So to dismiss Australia as a useful partner would also be a folly of the highest order. In any strategic alliance framework involving the Indian Ocean region, Australia is indispensible. Its alliance with the US means its armed forces have had valuable combat experience, something that the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) lack.
IORARC is a regional forum that Indonesia can help develop, should we wish to ensure our own strategic interests in both the near and distant future.
Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. Contact him at email@example.com.