Indonesia Can Lead the Way for ASEAN on US and China – Just say ‘No’ to both.

Oct 28, 2020

The U.S. has been pressing many Southeast Asian states to join it in its efforts to politically and militarily contain China.  Indonesia – the de facto leader of ASEAN – can show the way for ASEAN members by just saying “no”  to requests and actions from both the U.S. and China that it judges are contrary to its interests. 

Indonesia’s non-alignment status is about to be sorely tested.  The stated purpose of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s upcoming visit is to discuss how Indonesia and the U.S. can co-operate toward ‘a free and open Indo-Pacific’, the US construct to contain the ‘China threat’. U.S. has been pressing many Southeast Asian states to join it in its efforts to politically and militarily contain China.  Indonesia – the de facto leader of ASEAN – can show the way for ASEAN members by just saying “no”  to requests and actions from both the U.S. and China that it judges are contrary to its interests.

Indonesia recently rejected a U.S. request to refuel and service its intelligence collection planes targeting China. This comports with its non-aligned policy and its expressed desire to stay neutral in the US-China struggle for regional dominance.  But the U.S. is nothing if not persistent.

Indonesia has said “no” to China as well. It reportedly rejected a Chinese proposal to build a military base in Indonesia. Regarding this rejection, Dahnil Azhar Simanjuntak , a spokesperson for Defense Minister Probowo said:

“We always uphold the principle of a free and active foreign policy, especially with regard to military installations. Indonesia will never participate in or become involved in conflicts with countries in the world, let alone become a proxy,”

The latest pressure from the U.S. comes in the context of several in-your-face anti-China statements on the South China Sea by Pompeo. In essence, he seems to be saying “you are with us or against us”.  The U.S. has also ramped up its military posture in the South China Sea to show it means business. China has responded in kind and more—both diplomatically and militarily, and the contest for the hearts and minds of Southeast Asian countries has reached a new level of intensity.

The U.S. flies thousands of Intelligence,Surveillance and Reconnaissance(ISR ) missions every year in the South China Sea and along China’s coasts. These probes have increased markedly this year with 36 in May, 49 in June and 67 in July.  Some fly out of the Philippines and Singapore. Malaysia has offered access for refueling US spy planes in Labuan. Despite denials, these countries are decidedly aligned in China’s eyes and thus potential targets in a US-China military conflict. Taiwan regularly gathers aerial intelligence over the East and South China Seas. The U.S. is also considering supplying Vietnam with ISR planes that Vietnam will likely use to monitor Chinese activities and share the results

These ISR probes are not just irritating ‘flies at a picnic’ as one Chinese military spokesman once described them.  They are serious business. They probe China’s defenses on its occupied features in the South China Sea and along its coast searching for weaknesses. Some of them target China’s nuclear ballistic missile submarines that are based at Yulin on Hainan and try to hide in the deep South China Sea. For China these submarines –and thus the probes to detect and potentially target them – have existential significance and consequences. They are China’s insurance against a first strike—something the U.S.—unlike China–has not disavowed.

According to Peking University’s South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI)  US Air Force electronic intelligence aircraft have used identification codes assigned to Malaysian and Philippines civilian aircraft.  If true, this is an unsafe practice and a violation of international norms.  It also puts the Philippines and Malaysia in a quandary.  The Philippines Security Advisor Hermogenes Esperon Jr. worried that the incident could “incriminate” the Philippines and requested an explanation from the US Embassy.

Facilitation of US intelligence probes against China only draws them deeper into the divide.  For example, Malaysia has tried to hedge militarily between the two by allowing Chinese submarines and their escorts to refuel at Sapanggar Naval Base in Sabah.  It said that it was standard international procedure to welcome visits by foreign navy vessels “based on each nation’s request and upon diplomatic clearance”.

In the bigger picture, the U.S. is trying to expand and enhance its China containment perimeter and associated net of intelligence collection over the sea bordering China’s vulnerable underbelly. The Philippines and Thailand are still US allies and facilitate US strategy by providing ‘places’ for  US military assets.  Royal Thai Air Force bases are an important element in the Pentagon‘s “forward positioning” strategy.  Despite an on – again – off – again  agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines, there is  a continuing US military presence at five bases — including some near the  South China Sea.

Malaysia’s Butterworth Royal Air force Base is used by US ally Australia and is the head quarters of the Five Power Defense Arrangements Integrated Area Defense System. This arrangement also includes US ally the UK, and Singapore.  In this context, it is no coincidence that US ally Japan is improving its defense ties with Vietnam and Indonesia.

The U.S. has also made headway with non-aligned India regarding the South China Seas.   India has allowed the U.S. to refuel and obtain logistics support for an armed Poseidon P8 at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. It is not clear if this was a one off or the beginning of a pattern. Given the resurgence of the Quad—a clearly anti-China grouping—it may well be the latter.  If so, China will likely consider that by its actions India is for practical purposes no longer “non-aligned”.

Now the U.S. is leaning on Indonesia to join this anti-China containment club.  As an indication of its need for partners in this endeavor, it waved its ban on Indonesia’s Defense Minister Probowo Subianto for human rights violations by inviting him to Washington to discuss defense co-operation.

The request to Indonesia regarding US spy planes was a bad idea because it opened the door for Indonesia  to set an example on how to deal with the big powers.  Greg Poling, an ‘expert’ on the South China Sea at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies said that the request was “an indication of how little folks in the U.S. government understand Indonesia”.

There have been obvious signals that Indonesia would ‘decline’ such a US request to aid it military especially if it involved troops or assets on its soil.  Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has said that “We don’t want to get trapped by [the US-China] rivalry”.  Dino Patti Djalal a former Indonesian Ambassador to the U.S. and former Deputy Foreign Minister said the US’s “very aggressive anti-China policy” has alarmed Indonesia and the region. “It’s seen as out –of- place.  This is a reality that US foreign policy analysts choose to ignore.

Despite their profession of neutrality regarding the US-China struggle for dominance in the region, some ASEAN members are essentially aiding and abetting the U.S. in its efforts to contain China. They may be fooling their publics but they are not fooling the main protagonists whose military strategists consider them either for or against them. Indonesia is clearly still non-aligned .  If it stays this way, ASEAN members should follow its lead.

This piece first appeared in Asia Times

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