Tue, 09 May 2000

A stable Indonesia vital for Southeast Asian security

By Paul Dibb

The following article is based on a paper presented at an international conference recently held in Bogor, co-hosted by the Jakarta-based Research Institute for Peace and Democracy. This is the first of two articles.

BOGOR: Despite the dramatic events in Indonesia, Southeast Asia is not an area of high priority for the major powers.

Developments in Northeast Asia, and particularly the tensions between China and the United States over Taiwan, as well as the risk of war between India and Pakistan in South Asia, will preoccupy the major powers.

This is not to argue that Southeast Asia is strategically unimportant. The ten ASEAN countries have a combined population of over 500 million people and they stand astride very important straits that account for about 40 percent of the world's maritime trade. The region is flanked by the crucial strategic landmasses of Northeast Asia and South Asia.

To a growing extent, the interests of the great powers are likely to overlap in Southeast Asia. But it is important to understand that, unlike Northeast Asia and South Asia, major power war is most unlikely to occur in Southeast Asia.

This gives the region an essentially peaceful outlook. Within Southeast Asia, it seems highly improbable that one regional country will attack another, despite tensions and disagreements between some members of ASEAN.

What is of much greater security concern is political and social stability within the ASEAN countries themselves and the risk that serious upheaval or fragmentation, especially in Indonesia, will infect other parts of Southeast Asia.

Indonesia's stability is central to the national security of its neighbors: Singapore and Malaysia to the north, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea to the east, and Australia to the south.

With this analysis in mind, we now examine the outlook for regional security. This will include the role of the major external powers.

Overall, it is my view that we are unlikely to see a major disruption to Southeast Asia's security, leading to serious armed conflict.

This is an important judgment. It depends crucially upon an optimistic view of the outlook for stability in Indonesia.

We live in a period, the post-Cold War era, of great strategic change and unpredictability. Who would have foreseen the demise of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, let alone the Asian economic crisis and the overthrow of the Soeharto regime in Indonesia?

It is easy, therefore, for former defense planners -- such as myself -- to be cautious about the future. At the very least, we should be wary of predicting a fail-safe and optimistic outlook for Southeast Asia.

Responsible security analysts should ask themselves what might go wrong. This is not to indulge in "worst-case" scenarios. Rather it is to examine a range of credible alternative outcomes for regional security, so that our political leaders are not caught by surprise when something goes badly wrong.

What are some of these alternative futures then? They range from conflict between Thailand and Myanmar and Cambodia and Thailand over border disagreements, through to a repeat of the military clashes that occurred in the late 1970s between Vietnam and Cambodia or China being tempted again to "teach Vietnam a lesson". Most of these scenarios are unlikely, except for the growing problems between Myanmar and Thailand.

Further to the south, there are periodic tensions between Malaysia and Singapore over territorial and ethnic matters but these two countries seem to have learnt how to manage a difficult relationship.

The Philippines still faces serious problems of insurrection in its southern province of Mindanao and it is very concerned about China's claims to Philippines' territory in the South China Sea.

To the east of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea is a weak state facing potential economic collapse and strong secessionist movements.

From Australia's perspective, it now confronts an arc of instability to its near north stretching from Indonesia through to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, where there is an active insurrection.

New Zealand's defense policy, which is to structure its armed forces primarily for peacekeeping, means that that country is becoming more of a strategic liability than a defense asset for Australia.

In contemplating the strategic future, there is a growing consensus that Southeast Asia will be the focus of what is called "the new strategic agenda".

In other words, the region will increasingly experience the effects of illegal migration, drug trafficking, piracy, and transnational environmental damage.

Whilst these non-traditional security concerns are unlikely to lead to armed conflict between nations, they do add to regional instability and tensions, especially between neighboring countries.

In theory, these problems should lend themselves more readily to cooperation among countries of the region than the more demanding issues of military cooperation and transparency.

But in several regional countries drug trafficking, economic activities that lead to severe environmental damage, illegal migration, and even piracy involve vested interests, including the military. It will, therefore, be difficult to eradicate these serious problems.

The Asian economic crisis of 1997 and 1998 demonstrated just how closely economics and security are intertwined. The speed and depth of the crisis was unprecedented in modern Asian economic history.

It fundamentally shook the confidence of the region. It also undermined the idea that Asian countries had found a foolproof combination of political authoritarianism and state capitalism that would ensure economic growth for all time.

But the crisis also demonstrated that democracy was alive and well in South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines where democratic elections led to a smooth handover of power.

The story was different in Indonesia, which was much more profoundly affected by the crisis than any other country. But even there the collapse of Soeharto's military regime was relatively peaceful.

Even so, the economic crisis has set back Indonesia's prosperity by at least ten years. Unemployment remains extremely high and democracy is fragile. The economic crisis has had serious security implications for Indonesia.

It has also made the rest of the region much less confident and more introspective. This means that most countries in the region have less time to give to broader regional security cooperation.

What is the likelihood of another economic crisis?

While most countries in the region are making a remarkable economic recovery, they have done little to address the fundamental structural problems that made them so vulnerable to the crisis of 1997.

The key issues of banking reform, financial accountability, currency volatility, as well as corruption, have hardly been touched in many instances. This means that the region is vulnerable to another crisis.

The fear must be that few if any, countries in Asia have learned much from the crisis of 1997 and 1998. There is an imperfect understanding of the nexus between economics and security in the region.

But the balance of power and the role of the external powers should also be of serious concern to Southeast Asian security planners.

The most obvious issue of contention is China's claim to all the islands and reefs in the South China Sea and their surrounding waters. The Chinese authorities continue to issue maps which show that China effectively claims the whole of the South China Sea and there is evidence that the People's Liberation Army continues to militarize China's claims.

Recently there have been clashes between some ASEAN countries and China over their South China Sea claims. China has used military force on more than one occasion in the South China Sea. The solution to this serious territorial issue is clearly negotiation and compromise.

But China is a rising power that sees itself as the natural leading power in Asia. It is acquiring, with assistance from Russia, modern military equipment that will enable it to prevail militarily in the South China Sea against any regional power, if it so wishes. Were China to succeed in asserting sovereignty over the South China Sea it would be able to penetrate deeply into Southeast Asia and threaten freedom of navigation.

There are serious questions surrounding the rise of China to power. Will China be a responsible and cooperative member of the international community, abiding by its rules of non-aggression and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries?

Or will China become an expansionist power, as have other rising powers in the past?

World history has been marked by the rise of ambitious new powers seeking to displace weaker powers. But China is many decades away from being a peer competitor with the dominant world power, the United States.

The main danger to Southeast Asia in the short term is not Chinese military aggression. It is the risk that the next theater of Cold War confrontation will be between the United States and China. There is a growing sentiment in America that sees China as a strategic competitor, if not the next "evil empire".

While there is an important convergence of interests with respect to North Korea and the spread of nuclear weapons, China and the U.S. increasingly diverge on a long list of key strategic issues. These include Taiwan; Japan's regional security role; Iran and Iraq; the expansion of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); the strengthening of other U.S. alliances; missile exports; theater and national missile defenses; and the U.S. security role in the Asia-Pacific.

David Shambaugh claims that growing "strategic competition" is likely to characterize Sino-American relations for most of the coming decade, irrespective of the new American administration that comes to office in 2001. I would assert that the risk is higher than this: for those of us who live in the Asia-Pacific region it is that there will be a struggle for power between the United States and China, leading to military confrontation.

The greatest risk is over Taiwan. War between the United States and China in the Taiwan Straits would risk drawing in America's allies, including Australia.

Washington would expect its other allies, particularly Japan and South Korea, to support it. Such expectations could seriously damage America's alliances in the region.

Short of such cataclysmic events, the main danger for Southeast Asia is that it will be under increasing pressure to side with either China or the United States in their struggle for power and influence. This could divide the region. There are already signs that Malaysia and Thailand incline towards China. Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore favor the U.S.. Indonesia has traditionally been hostile to China. But President Abdurrahman Wahid has talked recently about a triangular relationship with China and India that would offset Indonesia's traditional closer relationship with the United States.

The future course of Indonesia's relations with China will be followed with the utmost scrutiny, not least by the United States and Australia. The purchase by Indonesia of arms from China, for instance, would raise alarm.

There is the further issue that China does not accept the rationale for the U.S. forward military presence in Asia. It explicitly calls for the abrogation of all alliances, claiming that they are not conducive to maintaining peace and security in the post-Cold War world.

Before his visit to Australia last year, President Jiang Zemin proclaimed that alliances were "obsolete". (What in fact is obsolete is Communism}.

Chinese officials have openly called for the removal of U.S. forces from the region. China must accept that the U.S. is not going to withdraw from Asia and America's alliances are not going to disappear.

China needs to understand that Asia without the United States would be a dangerous place. It would leave the region open to Chinese hegemony and to the potential for conflict between China and Japan. None of this would be conducive to peace and stability in the region.

As China's influence in Southeast Asia grows, India -- which is also a major power -- will seek to compete with China. Until recently, India's poor economic performance, its alliance with the former Soviet Union, and its military preoccupation with Pakistan have served to limit its interests in Southeast Asia.

But India now seems set on a path of economic reform and its economy is growing strongly. The military balance on the subcontinent now firmly favors India and with each year that passes India's superior economic performance will improve its military advantage.

India, therefore, will be able to lift its strategic horizons away from its obsession with Pakistan. Southeast Asia is a natural area for India's future focus.

India has long-established historical ties to the region (including with Indonesia) and its territory, including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, are in close proximity to Southeast Asia.

Already, India is seeking to strengthen its old relationship with Vietnam, as well as with Japan. This competition between India and China will benefit the region because it will ensure that neither power predominates.

Japan should have strong strategic interests in Southeast Asia because more than half of its imports, including most of its oil, passes through the straits of the region.

If a potentially hostile power were to gain control over the maritime approaches to Southeast Asia, Japan's economic health would be fundamentally threatened. As long as the United States remains the dominant world power, and has a strong alliance with Japan, this will not occur.

Of greater concern is Japan's inability to provide leadership in Asia commensurate with its economic power. Partly, this is to do with lingering memories of Japan's aggression in the World War II. But it also stems from Japan's preoccupation with its domestic economic problems, which have seen its economy virtually stagnant for the last decade.

Moreover, as we saw in the Asian economic crisis three years ago, the United States is not willing to allow Japan to take on the role of financial leader in Southeast Asia.

It is important that Japan has more of a leadership role in the region both to offset the growth in China's influence and because its economy accounts for 60 percent of Asia's Gross National Product. But China -- whose economy is less than a fifth the size of that of Japan -- has a much higher political profile in the region.

Russia, which is the other major power, is unlikely to be a significant influence in Southeast Asia for the foreseeable future. It will remain preoccupied with its internal political and economic affairs and the situation along its borders, especially the territories of the former Soviet Union.

Russia's ability to supply advanced conventional weapons to China and India is, however, a matter of concern. Arms exports are one of the few competitive products produced by the ailing Russian economy. Russia has the capacity to upset the regional military balance and it is already doing this through its arms supplies to China.

Overall, it is unlikely that any one major power will become the hegemony in Asia. Instead, what we are likely to see is a competitive struggle for influence between the United States, China, Japan and India.

The key relationship here is the one between the United States and China, which must not be allowed to deteriorate into military confrontation and war.

Prof. Paul Dibb is head of the Strategic and Defense Studies Center in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University. He was formerly Deputy Secretary and Director of the Joint Intelligence Organization in the Australian Department of Defense.