Australia and Indonesia: Middle Power Cooperation in the South China Sea

Australia and Indonesia: Middle Power Cooperation in the South China Sea

Australia and Indonesia: Middle Power Cooperation in the South China Sea

By Tanya Matthews from Perth USAsia Centre | 07 Nov 2017

Australia and Indonesia: Middle Power Cooperation in the South China Sea teaser
In the great power security game currently centred on the South China Sea, Beijing is inching ever closer to its goal of obtaining de facto control, particularly on the back of President Xi Jinping’s articulation for a more ‘assertive’ foreign policy during the PRC’s 19th Party Congress in October.  Indeed, it has long been China’s ambition to pursue the ‘China Dream’ and restore itself to Middle Kingdom status, particularly in the region. While controls over various islands and reefs have been disputed for decades, the magnitude of China’s island building campaign has been the cause of alarm among regional nations, including Australia and Indonesia.

Not only do the Chinese claims clash with the claims of some surrounding states, the build-ups also allow for unimpeded Chinese naval and air patrols, essentially solidifying an administrative and economic claim with a military presence.  The US is responding by strengthening its military deployment and emphasising its presence in the South China Sea through increasingly routine freedom of navigation operations. Furthermore, an international tribunal in the Hague rejected China’s sweeping claim to almost all of the South China Sea, and rebuked its violation of international law in its island building activity earlier this year. Despite all this, it seems that China’s incursions in the region remain undeterred.

Both Australia and Indonesia have an interest in keeping the peace and ensuring security in the South China Sea, particularly because their economic prosperity is dependent on its trade routes. As middle powers however, both are relatively limited in its scope to change the dynamics of the tensions in the South China Sea. On the other hand, they hold the potential to work multilaterally and under international law to limit great power ambitions, as well as to strengthen the voices of smaller regional powers through international organisations.  Australia and Indonesia are arguably the best equipped in the region to lead a multilateral community of middle powers which can collectively mediate the South China Sea disputes and exert pressure on the great powers to cooperate in responding to regional security challenges. Indeed, both Australia and Indonesia are official non-claimants in the territorial disputes, have similar economic and diplomatic weight, share security perspectives and ultimately call for a rules-based international order to prevent great power ambitions impinging on the interests of smaller nations.

Taking into account the various strategic challenges hindering Canberra and Jakarta in leading mediation, the question arises of whether effective bilateral cooperation is viable at all. Firstly, although Australia has refrained from joining the American FONOPs, it remains too closely aligned with the US to be regarded in China’s eyes as a neutral player. Indonesia on the other hand, while being an official non-claimant, has taken measures to guard its territorial integrity by renaming its recognised sovereign waters as the North Natuna Sea, as it overlaps with part of China’s Nine-Dash Line claim. In addition to this, the repeated calling for and subsequent backing away of Australia-Indonesia joint naval patrols clearly indicate that a level of mistrust between the two states is still very much present. Indeed, a Perth USAsia report shows that while there are many opportunities for effective bilateral cooperation, the challenges of closer Australia-Indonesia relations remain significant.

These factors present significant challenges for Canberra and Jakarta if they are to play an influential role in bringing smaller regional states together and mediating tensions in the South China Sea.  However, a starting point for both countries would be a rejuvenation of roles within existing security forums, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting. While these institutions often face criticism for being ‘toothless tigers’, especially after its failure to develop a legally binding framework for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea earlier this year, it nonetheless provides an important opportunity for interaction among regional policymakers. The current prospects for an effective ASEAN unit however, will be even more challenging as the Rohingya crisis progresses and since the Philippines assumed chairmanship this year. Therefore, it is imperative that both Australia and Indonesia take a larger role in other forums, such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) as well as exploring the prospects of an ‘Indo-Pacific Treaty’, called for by the former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, as a vehicle of regional cooperation.

Further, Australia and Indonesia should continue the trend of its foreign ministers actively promoting discussion on non-traditional maritime security issues that contribute to tensions between states.  An example is the problem of overfishing and illegal fishing in the South China Sea, which has resulted in the increased frequency and severity of violent clashes between fisherman and coast guards. Australia and Indonesia can work together to advocate a regional regime to manage this issue, particularly as president Joko Widodo has prioritised the problem in his administration. Australia can assist by lending its expertise in fisheries management and build the capacity for a regional community to tackle these issues that threaten maritime security.

While middle power collaboration on security issues is often lengthy and done through institutions criticised for being mere talk shops, Canberra and Jakarta must take a leading role in initiating and sustaining discussion on security issues in the South China Sea. Middle powers are no doubt inferior in military and economic capability compared to great powers, but they hold the potential to curb great power ambitions when they cooperate.  A peaceful maritime environment is in the interests of all regional nations, and Canberra and Jakarta must lead the way towards a middle power community that can effectively mitigate great power tensions.
Tanya Matthews is an intern at the Perth USAsia Centre. She is currently studying a double Masters degree in International Relations and International Law at The University of Western Australia.

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