March 7, 2023
JAKARTA – The tension in the South China Sea between the United States and China is reaching dangerous proportions as the two powers take their rivalry to the highly strategic Asian waters. We are not at the tipping point that would turn this tension into a full-scale war, but at the current rate of development, we could get there a lot sooner than we think if neither side wants to back down.
China continues to deploy its naval warships and build military structures on islets and reefs in the South China Sea to exercise and enforce its territorial and maritime claims, although some areas are in dispute with other countries in Southeast Asia. The US and its allies in the region and beyond are sending their warships, invoking freedom of navigation and the need to ensure safe passage of commercial ships. There have already been several skirmishes and near misses between the US and Chinese warships, and these are happening at a greater frequency.
The contested waters in the South China Sea are crucial links for international trade between East Asia, the Middle East and on to Europe. But more than freedom of navigation and territorial claims, this is already turning into a battle for supremacy between the two great powers. Unfortunately, Southeast Asian countries do not have the power to tell these two giants: “Not in my back yard.”
The South China Sea is becoming the main potential flashpoint in the rivalry between the two powers, more so than the tension over the Taiwan Strait to its north. There are restraining factors over Taiwan, where the US has poured billions of dollars into arming the Taipei government to defend itself and US President Joe Biden declared the US would intervene militarily in the event of a China attack. We saw these restraining factors at work in the wake of the visit of then-US House speaker Nancy Pelosi to the island in August last year and China’s swift response in conducting massive military exercises around the island. Both sides quickly backed off.
What factors exist that can restrain both sides from engaging in full conflicts in the South China Sea are not too clear, if indeed there are any. Here, with the escalating tension, it could become a question of who blinks first. It is not an understatement to say if war were to begin between the two powers, dare we say the start of World War III, it would likely begin in these waters, rather than around Taiwan.
This calls for swift diplomacy from a third party to de-escalate the tension. Southeast Asian countries, which are directly feeling the impact, should step in, no matter how unfeasible it may sound.
Other middle powers in the region like India, Japan, South Korea and Australia are already aligning with the US. Some members of ASEAN, out of national interests, are siding with one or the other power. So much for ASEAN unity.
This leaves Indonesia among the few that can take up the role of an honest broker. Indonesia must use whatever diplomatic leverage it has to get both powers to back off. Indonesia must muster all its diplomatic skills and experience to promote peace and stability in the region, and in this particular case, in the world. The task at hand is nothing less than preventing a World War III.
Indonesia did not come to this as a complete novice in peace-making. It pulled off the impossible when it hosted the Group of 20 Summit last November despite disagreements among members over the Russian-Ukraine war. In the 1980s-90s, Indonesia initiated the Cambodia peace process. And Indonesia has stubbornly stuck to its principle of nonalignment in this rivalry, so that it can talk to both sides.
Admittedly, this task is a much bigger one than Indonesia has ever tackled before, but it should give it a try nevertheless. Our Constitution mandates nothing less.