Time for Indonesia to act to cool rising Indo-Pacific temperatures

The odds may be heavily stacked against Jokowi, but he should give it a go nevertheless, not only for Indonesia’s sake but for the sake of regional and global peace.

Endy Bayuni

Endy Bayuni

The Jakarta Post


Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (left), United States President Joe Biden (second left), Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (second right) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wave to the media prior to the Quad meeting at Kishida's office in Tokyo on May 24. (AFP/STR)

June 2, 2022

JAKARTA – The temperature in the Indo-Pacific region is rising, not only because of global warming but more because of the increasing tensions between the United States and China. Their rivalry is no longer confined to the exchange of harsh words. Both are actively seeking to build alliances, expand their sphere of influence and beef up military strength.

Indonesia, like all other countries in the region, is caught up in this rivalry between the two superpowers, but unlike most of them, it has managed to stay unaligned with either camp. This affords Indonesia the space and opportunity to help cool down tensions.

Now more than ever, Indonesia should use every power and leverage available at its disposal to conduct more aggressive diplomacy to preserve peace in the Indo-Pacific region.

We should not underestimate our credentials as peacemakers but neither should we overrate ourselves. Indonesia is the fourth-largest country in the world and the largest member of ASEAN, and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is this year’s president of the Group of 20 world’s wealthiest nations.

Without the economic means and military power, these credentials may not be enough for Indonesia to prevail over the two superpowers to tell them to deescalate tensions, but this should not stop President Jokowi and his diplomatic machinery from trying.

The question is, if not Indonesia, who else has the capacity to stop the current cold war from shifting into a hot war? Most countries in the region that could make a difference are already aligning themselves with the US.

This is not the time to finger-point at who began the escalation. Statements and actions by both sides have contributed to the tensions, and unless restrained, they can only get worse.

Many analysts make inferences to the Ukraine war, which pits the invading Russian military against Ukrainian forces, but we know that the conflict was triggered by the growing tension between Moscow and Washington with its NATO allies. Analysts have played up Taiwan as a potential flashpoint in the Indo-Pacific, in the same way that Ukraine had been in Europe.

US President Joe Biden, during his visit to Japan last week, vowed that the US would respond militarily if China invaded Taiwan. His declaration was more than what any previous American president had been willing to say openly about Taiwan, raising speculations of a change in US policy — and an almost sure recipe for war with China.

Biden’s statement riled Beijing, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin calling it an interference in China’s domestic affairs and that it could be construed as supporting pro-independence forces in Taiwan in violation of the One-China policy. China considers Taiwan a belligerent province.

Biden was in Tokyo for a summit with leaders from Japan, Australia and India, which together form the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), an informal alliance set up to contain the rise and aggression of China in the Indo-Pacific region. Last October, the US formed a new military alliance with the United Kingdom and Australia to patrol and secure a free and open Indo-Pacific, again with China perceived as a chief threat.

China has not been inactive in the Indo-Pacific region.

Having secured a security pact with the Solomon Islands early in May, Foreign Minister Wang Yi toured Pacific islands countries this past week, apparently with a proposal for a sweeping regional economic and security pact. Citing a leaked document, Reuters reported on Monday that the proposal was rejected by some of the Pacific countries.

China’s building of artificial islands on top of rocks and reefs in the South China Sea to station its military hardware has raised concerns among Southeast Asian countries, several of which have territorial disputes with Beijing in the strategic international waterways. There have been skirmishes between China’s warships and coast guards and patrol boats of Southeast Asian countries in the area, but each time, both sides showed restraints.

Taiwan remains the main flashpoint, which is probably behind Biden’s controversial remarks.

China’s military buildup across the Formosa Strait and President Xi Jinping’s speech in October saying that “reunification with Taiwan must be fulfilled” have triggered speculations that it is now only a matter of time before China takes over Taiwan by force.

We may soon be reaching the dangerous tipping point of who blinks first, unless somebody steps in quickly. That somebody is Indonesia.

The preamble to the 1945 Constitution gives that mandate to President Jokowi, as it states that Indonesia should take part in the “establishment of a world order based on freedom, perpetual peace and social justice”.

And now with the escalation of tensions between China and the US, Indonesia’s non-alignment principle and its active and independent foreign policy doctrine are being put to the test like never before.

Indonesia may have to go it alone rather than using the ASEAN vehicle, as some of the 10 member countries are already aligned with the US and others with China. But the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which Indonesia drafted and ASEAN leaders endorsed in 2019, would be a useful tool for President Jokowi in pushing for deescalation.

As long as he is still the president of the G20, Jokowi should use the office as a launching pad for his peace mission in the Indo-Pacific region. Next year, when Indonesia takes over the rotating ASEAN chair from Cambodia, the President could use this office to further enhance his peace credentials.

The odds may be heavily stacked against Jokowi, but he should give it a go nevertheless, not only for Indonesia’s sake but for the sake of regional and global peace.

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