Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Organizational Unity and Strength of Asean

If you recall, in my last blog post, I referred to an opinion piece written by my colleague Yohanes for the publication Strategic Review. In that piece, he makes a number of interesting arguments, including one that connects Indonesian foreign policy to the future viability of Asean. Specifically, he worries that having an "all friends but no enemies" approach to foreign policy might undermine and weaken the unity and strength of Asean in the future.

I wish Yohanes explored this argument in more detail, but, of course, he was hamstrung by space limitations. In only 750-1000 words, it's impossible to adequately discuss and explain every side argument. With that in mind, in this blog post, I'd like to pick up where he left off.

To begin, let's clarify a couple of terms. When Yohanes refers to the organizational unity and strength of Asean, he seems to be talking about the ability of Asean member countries to agree on various policy issues and to collectively wield power (diplomatic, military, economic, and so on) in response to these issues. After all, Yohanes' concern is that Asean will suffer divisions and fractures, which would limit the organization's potential to get anything substantive done.

Now, on to the matter at hand. I do agree with Yohanes' assertion that Indonesian foreign policy could weaken Asean. But I suspect that this could occur because Indonesia's policymaking, at least for about the last 20 years, has tended to be passive and reactionary. Indonesia desires to hold a leadership position in East Asia and Asean, in particular, but hasn't really taken the reins on policy issues pertaining to the region. Instead, it has let other countries, whether Japan or China or South Korea, take the initiative by setting the agenda for East Asia, if not beyond. And inside Asean, Indonesia has been a vigorous participant in meetings and conferences, but again I don't see much evidence of the country taking a leadership role.

Sure, Indonesia played a strong role in Asean in 2011. It held the chairmanship, and, among other conferences and meetings, hosted two Asean Summits and the East Asian Summit. Indonesia also was integral in getting the U.S. to shift its attention to Asia and tightening its cooperation with Asean (a part of which included America's signing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation).

That said, aside from 2011, Indonesia hasn't dominated Asean, at least not the way I would expect based on its economic power and the importance that Jakarta places on the organization in its overall foreign policy. It's acted as one among equals. And really, a case could made that countries such as Malaysia have taken on a bigger, more prominent role in Asean over the last 20 years. At bottom, in my view, Indonesia has essentially dealt with Asean much as it does with foreign countries and issues: mostly in a passive manner, taking a backseat to others.

This kind of an approach to foreign policy could turn problematic if sharp differences between Asean members do surface. Indonesia likely won't do enough to keep countries in line and working together. And if it does begin to assert itself in situations like this, given Indonesia's disinclination, it will likely be too late, letting differences deepen and positions harden. Hence, in this case, the unity and strength of Asean would depend on what other Asean member countries do. If these countries don't value Asean as much as Indonesia does, and if they don't seize the leadership mantle to bring everyone together, the organization could be doomed. Emerging differences could easily further widen and deepen and tensions harden, causing intractable splits and divisions in the bloc.

If we move beyond Indonesia, there could be any of a number of other factors that might play a role in enervating the unity and strength of Asean. Indeed, there are so many different potential variables and so many different possible contexts or conditions that I can imagine a score of ways in which Asean could endure internal fissures and difficulties. Of course, a blog post isn't appropriate to undertake an exhaustive examination of all these different factors; a much longer treatment of the future of Asean would be better suited for that.

That said, I can identify one event that has the strongest likelihood of impacting Asean stability, and it's the 800 lb gorilla, or perhaps panda, in the room: the rise of China. Let's face it, the China issue is so important that, no matter how each responds to Beijing--whether in unison or not--it will surely lurk in the background, if not the foreground, of just about everything the bloc discusses and undertakes in the coming years.

China is going to continue to grow in both absolute and relative terms, just as it has for the past 35 years. Whether it finally achieves great power status is actually irrelevant to this discussion. Why? Put simply, unless something catastrophic occurs, China is going to dominate the region in a way that approximates America's power predominance in its own backyard. China's economic and eventually its military power will likely far exceed the might of other countries in East Asia, Asia-Pacific, and certainly within Asean member countries.

This impending situation is going to create new realities on the ground and in Asean capitals. Countries will face new constraints, new opportunities, and new pressures. And they will have to make a strategic calculation about how to deal with China's dominance. Certainly, Asian countries are already contemplating the implications of China's ascent and their responses to it. But as we move forward into the future, the changes and shifts in regional politics will carry a much greater sense of urgency for Asean member countries to come with a plan and react accordingly.

So what will Asean do? Will member countries attempt to balance against Beijing? Might they try to remain above or outside the fray by staying on the sidelines, preferring to mind their own business, or serving as mediators between China and its rivals in the region? Or perhaps, if one or more countries is bullied or sees an opportunity to profit, some could see bandwagoning as the best strategic option.

The problem, at least with respect to the topic at hand, is that there is no guarantee all Asean members will see the rise of China similarly and respond to China in a similar fashion. There is no reason to assume that Asean--that is, all Asean members--will necessarily seek to balance against China's rising and potentially overwhelming power. It's possible, sure, though by no means guaranteed. Strategic calculations are a product of a country's goals, interests, values, geography, material power, and perceptions of reality, among other things. And each of these indicators can vary, and vary greatly, from country to country in the region. So some countries in Asean might fear China, see it as a strategic threat, and form a policy based on that assessment; but others could very well read the situation much differently, opting to pursue policies that look little like those from their more insecure and pessimistic Asean partners. And if Asean member countries aren't walking in unison on the China issue, instead choosing different strategic paths, then Asean could endure--perhaps prolonged--bouts of dissension.

To be clear, and this applies to both the Indonesia and China examples, potential discord and fissures in Asean could be more or less severe, depending on a host of factors. And these internal organizational problems could take many different forms. We might see Asean reach a breaking point at which the bloc is hanging together by a thread, just waiting for the right trigger to cause a complete implosion. But at the less extreme end of the spectrum, we could observe a political stalemate in Asean. But regardless of the type and severity of the divisions in Asean, their mere presence will hamper the organization's ability to exercise and project power.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Grand Strategy for Indonesia

About a month ago, my colleague Yohanes penned a piece in Strategic Review that lamented Indonesia’s lack of a grand strategy. He suggested that Indonesia’s current foreign policy is aimless and reactionary. After the article’s publication, Yohanes revealed that he wondered what an effective, coherent Indonesian grand strategy would look like. Admittedly, he poses an interesting query. And after thinking it over, I have a few ideas.

To begin, Indonesia would be best served by focusing first and foremost on continuing its economic ascent. Toward this end, it should increase its commitment to economic development, good governance, uprooting corruption, and containing and thwarting local terrorism. Indonesia also ought to build off its recent efforts to engage multilateral institutions by taking on more active and assertive roles in international and regional bodies. If it became especially ambitious, Indonesia could even assist in writing new rules and principles that govern the world order of the 21st century.

To be clear, all of the above mentioned things are interrelated. They would likely help Indonesia to keep jobs aplenty, bolster tourism, bring more respect and admiration, and allow it to pursue its interests effectively.

In my view, Indonesia should aim to operate something, though certainly not exactly, like Japan. This would loosely fit with where Indonesia’s elites want the country to go. Avoid trouble, be friends with foreign countries, seek to be a mediator when possible, and, most importantly, serve as an economic engine to the world.

By going the "economy first" route, Indonesia really can benefit in important ways. First, as has been written at length by scholars and analysts, money and power will likely flow from the West to the East, Asia in particular, during the 21st century. Arguably, this is already happening. What this means is that Asia is where jobs, investment, and growth are all shifting. Moreover, it’s becoming clear, especially with America’s so-called pivot to Asia, that the region is where the most important diplomatic jockeying and intrigues will take place. Combined, we a get a picture of countries, businesses, groups, and people falling over themselves to get a piece of Asia, because that’s where the action is at.

If Indonesia gets its domestic political and economic act together, it can piggyback off the success of the entire region. Investors, speculators, businesses, organizations, and countries already attuned to the rise of Asia and looking for more activity there could eventually move with gusto to Indonesia. Furthermore, for those actors preferring to deal with a vibrant, emerging democracy, or for those wary of abetting the rise of the Red Panda, Indonesia might eventually function as suitable regional alternative to China for international economic, business, and political affairs.

Second, Indonesia might be able to develop its own version of soft power. Remember, for the last several centuries, the West has held a commanding advantage in both material power and soft power. People worldwide have wanted to be like the West. They wanted to be wealthy, sure, but also live in a free and democratic society. Because China lacks these features, many scholars and analysts already speculate that China will never hold much soft power, and that the lack of it will hold the country back. Put simply, without significant soft power, China won’t be able to maximize its influence in the world.

Perhaps, but that says nothing about Indonesia. And in fact, if Indonesia goes about its foreign and domestic politics and economics in a effective manner, as the largest Muslim country in the world, it has a decent prospect at possessing considerable soft power. It can be a shining beacon to Asia but also to Muslim countries. In this way, Indonesia could be a major global player. It possesses the potential, even if it seems unlikely at the moment, to influence countries near and far away.

One more point on soft power: for country that lacks a really strong military and isn't a top-flight economy, holding a lot of soft power could enable Indonesia to punch above its weight, so to speak, in regional and international politics. Soft power could enable Jakarta to do more things than we would predict solely by looking at measures of Indonesia’s hard power.

Where does Indonesia’s military fit in this picture? Over the long-term it will likely be in Indonesia's best interests not to strive to have a very powerful military. I’m not suggesting that Indonesia slash its military budget. To the contrary, it might even make sense to make increases to it, though this should be in line with any expansion in Indonesia’s economy. The bottom line: just enough of a military presence to patrol borders, protect the homeland, participate in disaster relief, and take care of anti-terror operations. Indonesia should keep enough of a military presence to maintain security, peace and calm, but not so much as to throw gobs money down the military industrial complex drain. All this would do is further entrench the military’s role in Indonesia’s politics and economics.

In the end, though, this would require bargaining with and between the military. On the one hand, the military would have to be convinced, likely with various creative inducements, that it will no longer be the face of country to its citizens or to the rest of the world. And on the other hand, I envision some kind of informal accord between the navy and the army. The army has traditionally gotten the bulk of the military budget, and would likely resist changes to how it operates and the resources it procures. But in crafting a better, more economical foreign policy, the Indonesian government ought to begin the transition to emphasizing the role of the navy. Given the country’s location and its geography, it just makes the most sense. After all, it’s the navy that safeguards the country’s borders and waterways and trade routes, and can offer humanitarian assistance as needed. To make this transition work, the navy and army must agree that Indonesia’s naval forces and power should be strengthened and modernized.

There are a host of specific regional and international issues on which Indonesia will have to take position in the future. One such issue is the coming superpower competition between China and the U.S. By acting as a neutral friend to Beijing and Washington and seeking to be a mediator in their likely disputes, it’s possible that Indonesia can be a positive force, one that muffles the potential for a catastrophic great power conflict in Asia.

Of course, this is one among many ways that Indonesia won’t function like Japan. Japan has a strong alliance with the U.S.; Indonesia doesn’t want to pick sides. It wants to remain above the fray. Certainly, there are pitfalls with this approach. For instance, declining to pick a side risks drawing the ire of both China and America. The key for Indonesia is to remain consistent (both over time and in private and public statements) and communicate with clarity, so as to avoid uncertainty regarding Jakarta's intentions and actions. Additionally, if the region experiences bipolarization, as frequently happens in great power contests for power and influence, Indonesia could face external pressure to pick a side. It could even feel internal pressure to pick side should China or America appear on the verge of becoming the dominant player in Asia. What Indonesia must do is stick to its evolving interests and values. These include maintaining foreign policy independence, avoiding conflict, encouraging negotiation over violence, and supporting multilateral solutions.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Nuclear Diplomacy and the North Korea Puzzle

Shortly before the death of Kim Jong il last December, North Korea and the U.S. made progress toward a deal on nuclear and missile testing. Ostensibly, Pyongyang agreed to halt nuclear tests and experiments and missile launches and allow the return of IAEA officials, in exchange for food and other humanitarian assistance and the possibility of improving North Korean-American relations. Kim's death put the deal on hold, while the country mourned and Kim's son began the process of consolidating political power. In late February, once North Korea's politics started to stabilize, Washington and Pyongyang revived the deal. Before long, Team Obama proudly announced that both sides had restarted and finalized the so-called Leap Day Deal.

Unfortunately, latest news out of North Korea has given, once again, the skeptics and pessimists much fodder. This time, government spokesmen have announced that North Korea will conduct an allegedly peaceful, non-threatening satellite launch some time between April 12-16. The North Koreans claim the purpose of the launch, timed to commemorate the (100th) birth of nation founder Kim il Sung, is to collect weather data and estimate crop yields.

But the U.S. and its friends in Asia believe the launch violates the deal that was struck just a few weeks ago. Reports and satellite images apparently that the North Korea is preparing to launch something that's far less innocuous and more military-related than Pyongyang has admitted thus far. Indeed, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Security Affairs Peter Lavoy reported to the U.S. House of Representative Armed Services Committee that the launch will likely violate the Leap Day Deal: "This planned launch is highly provocative because it manifests North Korea's desire to test and expand its long-range missile capability."

So while the names atop North Korea's leadership might have changed, the way Pyongyang does foreign policy likely hasn't. North Korea continues its cat and mouse routine with America. Time and again it sucks Washington into time and labor intensive diplomatic discussions, agrees to a deal, raises U.S. expectations, then eventually backs out of or cheats on the agreement. This pattern has held for the past two decades, dating back to the infamous 1994 accords, which brought heavy embarrassment to and criticism of the Clinton administration. In fact, knowing full well that it would only ratchet up the tensions even further, and giving countries more reasons to doubt and question Pyongyang's motives, last Thursday North Korea fired two short-range missiles.

In response to the April launch, the U.S. has already taken a number of steps. It has suspended efforts to recover the remains of American war dead from the Korean War, a deal that was agreed upon last October. According to Pentagon press secretary George Little: "When there are suggestions that they might launch ballistic missiles, when they make bellicose statements about South Korea and engage in actions that could be construed as provocative, we think that it's not the right time to undertake this effort."

President Obama himself has publicly stated his disapproval of the planned launch. He called on North Korea to scrap the launch and warned of severe counter-responses, which might include tighter sanction, and the risk of international condemnation and isolation.

Moreover, Washington has already suspended its food aid to North Korea. The U.S. argues that this isn't a direct response to the planned missile test but instead a reaction to the prevailing view that North Korea is unwilling to uphold its international commitments, which include, of course, the Leap Day Deal. Put simply, the U.S. just doesn't trust North Korea to match its words with deeds. According to state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland: "We don't have confidence in their good faith. If they want to restore our confidence in their good faith, they can cancel the plans to launch this satellite."

North Korea has announced that the satellite will travel south toward the Philippines or Indonesia. This bit of news has, understandably, alarmed American allies in the region. Let's look at a few examples.

Both Japan and South Korea have said that they might shoot down any part of the satellite/rocket that infringes on their territory. In the words of Yoon Won-shik, a vice spokesman at the South Korean Defense Ministry: "We are studying measures such as tracking and shooting down (parts) of a North Korean missile in case they stray out of their normal trajectory....We cannot help viewing (the launch) as a very reckless, provocative act" that undermines peace on the Korean peninsula."

The Philippines have protested the rocket launch to North Korean representatives in various international forums. Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, in agreement with recent comments from Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, said the planned rocket launch violated UN resolution 1874

As expected, Indonesia also is concerned and wants North Korea to halt its missile launch. Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Wardana has declared that Indonesia is monitoring the North Korean situation. Mahfudz Siddiq, chairman of the House of Representatives Commission I overseeing national security and a member of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), said that the SBY government “must urge North Korea...not to launch the missile....The plan itself has already raised tension in the region. I am afraid that the launch could eventually ignite new conflict."

To this point, the SBY government hasn't publicly criticized North Korea's planned launch. It has opted to use extreme caution and operate under the radar. Indonesia considers the launch a sensitive bilateral issue. It also wants the best of both worlds: it wants to have good relations with North Korea as well as with the U.S. and its Asian allies. Additionally, the SBY government clearly wants policy flexibility, which would be limited by deliberately choosing sides in public. We should also keep in mind that Indonesia see itself as a mediator and not a participant in this dispute, which suggests that the SBY administration is looking to remain above or outside of the fray.

Perhaps most significantly, China, North Korea's primary political, diplomatic and economic sponsor, is concerned. China has discussed the situation with North Korea's ambassador in March. And it has called on all parties to demonstrate "cool and restraint." China has long argued that the extent of its leverage over Pyongyang has been overstated in the West, mostly to duck putting much pressure on its client and neighbor out of fear of destabilizing the entire North Korean political system. Maybe Beijing more fully realizes, at least in this case, that sometimes some pressure is needed to push North Korea into acting in ways that are consistent with existing international rules and norms.

Unsurprisingly, the responses and reactions have upset North Korea. Surely, Pyongyang must be unnerved by the criticisms, protests, and warnings made by the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea. And we know that Pyongyang is bothered by America's words and actions. North Korea has called Obama's words confrontational. North Korea's news agency KCNA called America's move to suspend food aid an overreaction, one that has "gone beyond the limit." North Korea argues that Washington promised not to link political and strategic issues with humanitarian issues, which is what it believes America is now doing by suspending food aid. North Korean officials claim that the suspension of food aid nullifies the Leap Day Deal, "as it is a violation of the core articles of the February 29 DPRK-U.S. agreement." Interestingly, North Korea also insists the deal "does not include satellite launches for peaceful purposes."

How will this play out? Certainly, North Korea could be bluffing and decide not to go ahead with the launch. For that to happen, though, Washington will need to devise a way for Kim Jong Un to save face. It could happen. But it will take intensive diplomatic discussions with North Korea, which means that the U.S. needs access to the reclusive government in Pyongyang--either directly or perhaps via an interlocutor like China. And it will require young Kim and his military coterie to exhibit some policy flexibility.

But if North Korea proceeds with the launch, it will be important to observe the responses of South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and the U.S. Will Asian countries really mobilize their defenses and shoot down a rocket over their airspace? Will the U.S. push for a UN resolution condemning the launch? Will Team Obama look to place tighter, stronger international sanctions on North Korea? And if these things happen, what does North Korea do? Does it lash out militarily again? What America and its allies must keep in mind is that assertive responses to North Korea, while understandable, does run the great risk of re-running the cat and mouse game, escalating the dispute, even putting the entire region on the brink of war.

Instead, at least for now, it's probably better if Washington and its friends in Asia do not focus and obsess on the types of punitive measures to be applied on North Korea. They ought to treat the launch with caution, monitor it, and treat it for it is: a provocative act that could be much worse. Hint: think nuclear tests. The best route is not to give the launch massive headlines and escalate the situation but to downplay it. There's no need to add fuel to the steady fire that is contemporary nuclear and Korean politics. As long as it seems relatively harmless, let North Korea lash out for the moment. Let Kim have his day, which can legitimize him and help to stabilize North Korean politics. This can be a very good thing, on a number of levels.

Overall, this approach makes it harder for North Korea's military to argue that foreign enemies are out to get them; can undermine the military's hardline policy orientation; and maybe even over time disempower the hardliners. This approach, along with dialog, some reason, and a dash of luck, could subtlely lead North Korea to search for new, perhaps better and more peaceful and less confrontational, ways to deal with their neighbors and the West.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that countries not secure themselves or deprioritize national defense. And it will be tough for proximate countries like Japan and South Korea to downplay the launch, especially because they have sour relations with North Korea. The U.S. will have a tough time doing this as well. It's election season. In any crisis, but especially now, Obama will want to show that he's not weak on national security, and he will face incentives and pressures to take strong measures against Pyongyang. If North Korea ramps up its aggressiveness and bellicosity, then, without a doubt, it's time to reassess and perhaps plot out a new strategy. But we're not there yet. So in the meantime, everyone should calm down, relax, and exercise prudence.

*Please note: a version of this blog post has been published by Strategic Review. You can find the article here.