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How will the next Indonesian leader handle Asia's Cold War?

Indonesian presidential candidate Joko Widodo and his wife Iriana Widodo gestures after voting./AFP

Indonesian presidential candidate Joko Widodo and his wife Iriana Widodo gestures after voting./AFP

The victor will take the helm of the only Asean member capable of steering the region through stormy sea disputes with China

Since the 1997-1998 financial crisis, the East Asia region has experienced dramatic socio-economic change. The new Asian tigers, namely Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and recently the "re-awakened" China, were all born in the region.

The tiger pseudonym was earned thanks to ferocious economic growth in recent decades that has seen them leap to new status as advanced higher-income countries.

The economic booms experienced by these countries, however, have raised concern from academics and security analysts on the rising risks of military escalation in the region. Between 2001 and 2010, overall military expenditure in East Asia (including Northeast and Southeast Asia) increased by 69 per cent, with China alone rising enormously by 189 per cent, according to the Stockholm International Research Institute.

As tax-based income grows, military expenditures in East Asian countries have skyrocketed. Without mutual precaution, this security shift will go unchecked and threatens an arms race in the region.

Another imminent threat to East Asian security is a possible "cold war" between the US and China, the most "aggressive" regional player not only in terms of military expansion but also assertiveness. Like many china-watchers, Niall Ferguson of Harvard University believes that with its growing power, Beijing will try to reshape the rules and institutions of regional order to better serve its agendas. This has raised concerns from the US as its traditional role as "anchor of order" in the region.

With the recent emergence of territorial disputes in the natural resource-rich waters of the East and South China seas, the power contest has started to show its symptoms. As each country is now starting to weigh its own interests and choose which bloc could provide greater benefits, it leaves the region without a "middle power" that can act as a peace facilitator.

We cannot consider China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines or Vietnam as a possible peace facilitator, as they are claimants in the disputes over maritime territory. And despite their major presence in the region, Japan and South Korea are hardly appropriate peace facilitator candidates due to their tight and historic alliance with the US.

Singapore may contribute, but its size and lack of interest in the waters could prevent it from actively engaging in the cause. Meanwhile Thailand is busy rebooting its own democracy following its latest military coup. All of this leaves Indonesia as the only adequate candidate to serve the role of advocating peace in the region.

The debate between presidential candidates Prabowo Subianto and Joko "Jokowi" Widodo on Sunday showed that some apparently remain ignorant about Indonesia's stake in the South China Sea, making them wonder why Indonesia should even bother. Actually, besides its status as Southeast Asia's largest economy, the world's third-largest democracy and its relatively balanced connections with both the US and China, Indonesia has a direct interest in wanting to prevent the territory disputes from escalating.

If China goes ahead and implements its Air Defence Identification Zone (Adiz) in the South China Sea, Indonesia would find itself engaged in the disputes whether it wants to or not. Last February, Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said that "Jakarta surely will not accept Beijing's decision should it want to implement the Adiz over the waters".

The question now is what should Indonesia do to fulfil its duty? Indonesia should first assume firm leadership in Asean in order to make it more consolidated and relevant to the power race in the region, says Chicago-based international relations scholar Brad Nelson. Unfortunately, Indonesia often acts passively and prefers to avoid controversy. This inactive approach makes Asean seem as though it is lacking the steady leadership that it needs to address regional challenges.

If Indonesia really wants to lead Asean, it needs to step up its game and fill the vacuum at the top of the organisation. This can be achieved by taking more initiatives in solving the diverse problems Asean and its member states are facing. This will be the first real challenge for the next president, who will need strong political will and persuasive skills while at the same time upholding an independent and active foreign policy doctrine.

After consolidating Asean, Indonesia and Asean need to be more proactively involved in wider regional institutions across East Asia, says Oxford University security expert Jorg Friedrichs. There are at least four multi-regional instruments that Asean can utilise to promote peace and stability in the region, namely the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), Asean Plus Three (APT), East Asian Summit (EAS) and China-Asean Special Relationship.

With these forums alone, Asean has the leverage to become a strategic hub for at least 44 other countries in the Asia-Pacific, drawing Canada, European Union and Russia, which share security interests in the area. The China-Asean Special Relationship could be especially instrumental in defusing latent distrust between Beijing and its possible "foes" in Southeast Asia. An accord on the issue of possible joint development of the resource-rich waters, for example, could be further discussed within this forum.

It will be up to the next Indonesian president to decide whether the country will really fulfil its duty as the leader of Asean. Whatever decisions he makes with regard to Indonesia's future foreign policy, many hope he recognises the importance of Indonesia and Asean in preserving peace and stability in East Asia.


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