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Australia and Indonesia as regional middle powers in the Age of Trump

By Emirza Adi Syailendra

China’s rise has triggered a new era of power competition throughout the region that has threatened to tear apart the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from within. With the China threat looming and the US commitment to Southeast Asia waning, it is important for Indonesia and Australia as the middle powers in the region to cooperate in promoting peace and stability because it is everybody’s business. Southeast Asia, particularly in the South China Sea which, as a transit route, accounted for approximately 30 per cent of the world’s maritime trade in 2016, including about $1.2 trillion in ship-borne trade bound for the United States.

The reality is that Southeast Asia is increasingly unable to take a strong position against China due to economic dependence, not only for Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam (CMLV), but also other major Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. That being said, American presence in Southeast Asia is an indispensable strategic counterweight, given that the military and economic power gap between China and its neighbors is huge. However, with the power transition from President Barrack Obama to President Donald Trump in early 2017, the possibility of US retrenchment has caused concern among countries in Southeast Asia. This is particularly true for allies and partners, such as the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam, who expect the US to play a more prominent role in overcoming the collective-action problem of local actors failing to balance against the likely hegemon: China.

Southeast Asia is vital for the US because it contributes to significant population growth with a new emerging middle class in Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, which is a critical driver of the global economy. Aware of this significance, the Asia Pacific region became a geostrategic priority for the Obama administration, as shown by the signature “pivot to Asia” policy or the “Asia rebalance” strategy. However, as 45th president of the United States, Trump’s campaign narrative tended to focus on a domestic populist policy of “putting America first,” such as providing American jobs to American workers and halting mass immigration. The foreign policy field has also been targeted. This includes retrenching America’s commitment overseas, subsidising defense of allies, promoting democracy and intervening militarily in foreign conflict zones. While the US is likely to keep a limited presence of forward-deployed forces in Asia and lend support to its allies in the region during possible contingencies. Despite repeated reassurance from Washington over its commitment to Asia, many countries are not convinced the US will come to their aid in case of a confrontation with China. Furthermore, with the US abandoning its leading trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), some leaders doubt the credibility of Washington’s ability to walk the talk.

Against the backdrop of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) increasing activities in the South China Sea, such as deploying fighter jets and nuclear-capable long-range bombers to the Scarborough Shoal, combined with a growing number of naval vessels and fishermen in contested waters, many ASEAN countries have turned to policy of accommodation towards Beijing as there is doubt over whether Washington will provide support in the event of a conflict with China. With the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, for example, he departed from former President Benigno Aquino’s confrontational approach with China by opting for direct engagement. In addition, Duterte is unsure of the strategic utility of the final Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling and lack of support from ASEAN and the international community’s call to comply.

Southeast Asia, particularly in the South China Sea which, as a transit route, accounted for approximately 30 per cent of the world’s maritime trade in 2016, including about $1.2 trillion in ship-borne trade bound for the United States, promoting stability in Southeast Asia is everybody’s business.

Over the years, relations between the Australia and Indonesia have been confronted by numerous diplomatic hiccups. However, as strategic partners, both countries enjoy an extensive network of cooperation. The two are also part of high-profile international cooperation such as the G20 and cooperate in the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, Republic of Korea, Turkey and Australia) middle power grouping. Close cooperation between the two, therefore, can bring a positive impact to Southeast Asia, primarily by: promoting the importance of rules based order in the region.

In its own part, Australia, as a close ally to the US, needs to actively engage the Great Power to maintain its commitment in the region. Indonesia, in its own part as the first among equals in ASEAN, also has to be assertive in developing rules of engagement between the law enforcement as well as the military authorities, particularly in South China Sea. Cooperation between the Jakarta and Canberra in cooperative programs on technical, scientific and environment can be a good start to build confidence. Furthermore, developing common vision is also important so that tension in the region can be peacefully managed and the possibility of major powers complicating the situation that could lead to escalation of tensions in Southeast Asia can be avoided.

Emirza Adi Syailendra is a Senior Analyst at the Indonesia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU). A longer version of this article previously appeared in Fairobserver.

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