Indonesia has proposed to the regional community a treaty requiring countries in Asia and the Pacific to commit themselves to peaceful settlement of disputes and to avoid using force against one another.
In an exclusive interview with the Jakarta Globe, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said Indonesia had put forward the idea of the so-called Indo-Pacific Treaty because Indonesia and the other nine countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) were at the center of dynamic relations among countries in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, where armed conflict could directly affect them.
Marty said Indonesia should come up with an idea to anticipate conflict in the region, offering a preemptive mechanism for conflict prevention and resolution.
“We must become a country that shapes and moulds. We are not interested in simply responding in a passive way toward developments,” he said.
He said that Asean claimed for itself centrality and leadership.
“But to be central and lead, we have to have a vision. We have to have a ‘where are you taking us?’ mentality. We cannot simply hog the fast lane while not moving anywhere, or be sitting behind the wheel and not drive anywhere.”
He said Indonesia and Asean needed to constantly anticipate the next challenge, even if it was not necessarily apparent in the present.
Marty said that the Indo-Pacific region had been the beneficiary of decades of peace and stability, allowing the region’s nations to prosper. The absence of major conflicts had allowed the countries to focus on the peace dividend: the pursuit of economic development.
“Now we are all reaping the benefits of this situation, in such a way that we’re aware now that the East Asia and Pacific economies are some of the most resilient and the most dynamic economies globally at a time when other economies in different parts of the world are becoming even more negatively affected,” he said.
Indonesia, however, believed that the region could not take the situation for granted, Marty said, adding that constant nurturing and an investment of effort were required to maintain the kind of conditions the region had been able to secure.
Sources of possible conflict
Marty said he saw an ironic development paradigm in the region.
“Together with the economic prosperity countries in the region have begun to enjoy, there is almost a sense of renewed assertive nationalism that could become not necessarily constructive, and even a source of conflict in the region,” he said.
He identified three possible sources of conflict that should be anticipated and managed. First, he said, was a trust deficit, highlighted by disputes and conflicts in several subregions and within countries, such as the Korean Peninsula and Myanmar.
“In reality we have in some areas or in some subregions pockets of trust deficit, with some of them taking the most acute form; you can witness. With respect to the Korean Peninsula, that is the most classic and the most extreme form of an absence of trust,” he said.
In regard to Myanmar, Marty said, the region had to deal with the country’s internal situation, including how the authorities there handled discrimination against the Rohingya people.
“Countries outside Myanmar have displayed a lack of trust on what’s happening within that country,” he said.
“Myanmar itself has a distrust factor, so we believe that we have to address this issue of a trust deficit in a more purposeful and deliberate way.”
The second source of potential conflict is the issue of overlapping territorial claims, including in the South and East China Seas and over land boundaries.
China has in the past had standoffs with Vietnam and the Philippines over territorial claims in the South China Sea, while tensions have also arisen with Japan over what are known as the Senkaku Islands by Japan and the Diaoyu Islands by China.
“The reality is our region is marked by the existence of all these unresolved territories. If we do not have a means of managing these disputes in a serious manner, then we can foresee the risk that they might spiral out of control, and then we can have minor incidents spiraling to become a major crisis,” he said.
Marty argued that countries were testing each other’s resolve, trying to create reasons for conflict, and thereby destabilizing the region.
“We can easily imagine miscalculations based on misconception of the other’s intent, which can cause a huge crisis. That is why we need to address these problems by creating a reinforcement of the commitment to peaceful settlement of disputes,” he said.
He added that in regard to territorial disputes, the region was beginning to see the opening of a Pandora’s box.
The final point, according to Marty, is the changing power relations within the region, where major powers like the United States and China were displaying interest in extending their influence over smaller countries.
“We have to consider relations between China, the US, India and Japan. Somehow we are risking coming to the conclusion that rise of one country must be at the expense of another. Almost a sense that we are returning to a Cold War type of mentality. That there is one country becoming more prominent and there must be some kind of a balance of power, or a coalition of power rallied against it,” he said.
He said there was fear of reintroduction of the Cold War type of fault lines in the region that could create new conflicts.
“Now we need to create and introduce a new kind of perspective paradigm. We believe we must avoid a preponderance of power where one country dominates our region. We must create an equilibrium through the promotion of common security, prosperity and stability,” he said.
Legally binding treaty
Given the challenges above, Marty said new rules that regulated relations among countries in the region were needed.
“We believe that among other things, it is timely now to think of some kind of a binding treaty involving the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean, essentially to replicate Asean’s experience to the wider forum,” the minister said.
He said Asean had managed to stay together peacefully through the Cold War era as well as the post-Cold War era, concentrating on economic development that helped the region become an engine for global growth.
The grouping has created legal instruments, including the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) to ensure peaceful settlement of disputes and avoid the use of force among signatory states.
“Remember, the Southeast Asian region at one time was marred by division, by a great amount of distrust. There was actually open conflict and tension. But over time, we worked through it and developed a sense of Asean community. One key instrument in that objective was the TAC. It is not a magic wand. But it reflects a commitment by countries from the region even from 1976 to begin the process of committing ourselves to peaceful settlements of disputes,” he said.
He said that the Indo-Pacific region needed a similar treaty of friendship and cooperation, which would focus on the need to build confidence and common security, and within it an in-built mechanism for peaceful settlement of disputes.
“This can be an instrument that countries can join over time, and doesn’t have to be done all at one go. But you can have it out there for countries to gradually accept,” Marty said.
The most natural starting point, he said, would be the East Asia Summit, an annual gathering of the leaders of the 10 Asean countries along with eight major powers in Asia and the Pacific, including the United States and China as well as Australia, Japan, South Korea and India. Marty said that because participation in the East Asia Summit required agreement with the TAC, countries taking part were already predisposed to non-aggression requirements.
“They have acceded to the TAC. So, there’s nothing new there except now what’s required is not only that the non-Asean countries support Asean’s commitment for the non-use of force, but they themselves should commit not to use force against one another,” Marty said.
The next East Asia Summit is due to be hosted by the Philippines in 2014.
Marty said he had raised the idea for an Indo-Pacific Treaty at several international events and discussed it with other ministers from Asean and non-Asean countries.
“It needs a thorough discussion. But so far, I have received no objections,” he said.
The United States quickly accepted the idea in principle when it was raised by Marty during a forum in the country recently, according to a diplomat, speaking off the record.
However, quick acceptance by the United States could irk China, which could see the proposal as yet another move to contain it, according to an academic.
“The key to the realization of this treaty is China’s acceptance,” said Aleksius Jemadu, dean of Pelita Harapan University’s School of Social and Political Sciences.
“Indonesia needs to convince them that the treaty is not an instrument to corner them, and rather will benefit all countries in the region.
“Of all countries in the region, Indonesia has the size, the neutrality and track record as well as the diplomatic brains to convince major powers to accept its proposal. There is no harm in trying to wage peace in the region,” he added.