July 20, 2022
JAKARTA – The heightening tension between the United States and China is pulling Indo-Pacific nations into one or the other camp, but it’s too soon to give in to the idea that it has become a bipolar region. Some countries, Indonesia for one, still believe that the region has not been completely divided into two camps and that active multilateralism could stop the ongoing polarization and prevent the cold war from turning into a hot war.
Beijing appears to be already thinking of the region as a theater for the hegemonic contest with Washington. At least that’s what Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi implied in his speech in Jakarta at the ASEAN secretariat last week, when he said, “We should insulate this region from geopolitical calculations […] from being used as chess pieces from major power rivalry and from coercion.”
The analogy to chess implies that nations should stay out of the rivalry, rather than joining the game as chess pieces, whether as pawns, bishops, knights or rooks. And chess being a strategic board game, the speech is revealing of how Beijing sees its rivalry with the US.
One could assume that Washington is only happy to play a game in which there really are only two players. Playing chess means simplifying and reducing the expansive, diverse and complex Indo-Pacific region into either black or white pieces. You are either with one or the other side, or you just stay out and watch.
We beg to differ with this characterization of the current state of the Indo-Pacific region. We are indeed seeing some polarization as some nations, many out of national security interests, are being drawn into one of the two camps, but the region is not as polarized to the point that there are only two players who decide the course of development.
Both Beijing and Washington are certainly playing a game of strategy, but they should know that they are not the only players.
The US is building new alliances in the Indo-Pacific region on top of the existing ones it has had with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand. All of these security arrangements are with the clear intent of containing the rise of China.
There is the Quad alliance with Japan, Australia and India; the Australia-United Kingdom-US trilateral security pact (AUKUS); and this month saw the formalization of the NATO-AP4, where leaders of Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea attended a NATO summit for the first time. For sweeteners, US President Joe Biden announced in May the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) as part of the new US Indo-Pacific strategy.
China, for its part, is building its military presence in many parts of the Asia-Pacific region, including the East China Sea, the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. In May, Wang toured the Pacific island countries to try to hammer out a common security pact with the region. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive economic development program linking China with the Pacific islands and countries from maritime and continental Asia and the horn of Africa all the way to Europe, is widely seen as part of China’s economic and military expansionism and indicative of its sphere of influence.
Every country must decide what is in their best national interests when choosing where to position themselves in this emerging contest between two big powers. Some have already decided to ally with one of the two. But there are others who are trying to chart a middle path.
At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in May, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto in a speech echoed the sentiments of many countries in the Indo-Pacific region, certainly in Southeast Asia, that countries should not be forced to choose sides in the confrontation between the two powers.
This is the time for Indonesia and others to reinvoke nonalignment, the principle and not the movement, in dealing with the evolving geopolitical environment in the Indo-Pacific into a bipolar region. Indonesia and India, among the two founders of the Nonaligned Movement in 1960, should work hand-in-hand, through multilateral organizations including but not limited to the United Nations, to ensure that multipolarity rules in the region – and in the world for that matter.
When Indonesia takes over the rotating ASEAN chair next year, multipolarity should be top of its agenda.
The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, a new regional architecture that is inclusive of everyone, including China, and emphasizes cooperation rather than competition, never looks more relevant to help deescalate the tension in the region. Indonesia should also push Beijing to stop stalling the negotiations on a code of conduct for resolving disputes in the South China Sea.
Rather than allowing the US and China to play chess, Indonesia and other countries that are not aligned should demand a seat at the table. Rather than playing chess, challenge them to a game of poker, in which there are more than two players.
This may be a high-stakes game, but medium-sized and small countries know when to hold them and when to fold them. Can someone please deal the cards?