Can these two powers co-reign Asia?

Matthew Hanzel Avatar

Earlier this morning I saw this very interesting post at CSIS’ blog, regarding the Sino-Indonesian relations. The writing circulates last month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit at Bali. The summit was interesting for both countries: for China, since it becomes the prima donna of the conference, by the presence of President Xi Jinping and notable absence of President Barack Obama; and for Indonesia, for the success of the conference.

The above article sees that both countries have the trust necessary for becoming the dominant actors in the region. The prepositions are interesting: starting from how China is increasingly active in multilateral diplomacy including APEC, and how Indonesia moved its ASEAN chairmanship from 2013 to 2011 to focus on APEC. If seen as such, we may have a compelling argument that both China and Indonesia can lead the region together—or will they?

I do think both Indonesia and China possess a paradoxical view of the world. China has all the capabilities to become a great power: economics, military, political assertiveness, yet it has made it clear often that China does not want (or yet) to become a global power (or superpower). As this quotation that I really love: “China cannot even manage itself, how can it manage the world?”

Indonesia, on the other hand, does not have all the necessary capabilities to become a great power. It’s economy (while emerging strongly in the past few years) are relatively unstable, its politics is marred by corruption and conflicts between political parties. Yet it has one thing that China does not have: Indonesia has the willingness to step up actively in diplomacy. Perhaps you can attribute this to what Indonesia calls politik luar negeri bebas aktif (an independent and active foreign policy). Indonesia loves to try to excel and brag for many things. It tries to solve conflicts (despite the presence of various conflicts domestically), it also tries to send peacekeeping forces (while its domestic defense is far from sufficiently covers the minimum necessity). It also loves to brag its status as de facto ASEAN leader, a member of the world’s twenty biggest economies, and goes as far as ‘promoting’ the current president as a good candidate for UN secretary general’s position. It shows how, despite its lack of sufficient capabilities, Indonesia is willing to be a greater power.

I know you’ll say I’m crazy to say that both countries complete each other. It is impossible, of course, that both countries will form some sort of informal Sino-Indonesian alliance. Both countries are significantly different in many aspects. Nonetheless, for Asia-Pacific, both countries’ relations may prove to be important. As countries are suspicious on China’s rise, and often leans on the United States, the possibility of such important relationship to last for a long time is rather dim than bright. As the following survey shows, quoted from Pew Global Attitudes Forum, Indonesians are relatively split whether China will replace the United States as a global power or not.

Will China replace the US as the world's superpower? (source: Pew Global Attitudes Project)
Will China replace the US as the world’s superpower? (source: Pew Global Attitudes Project)

It is also a reputation well known to many that Indonesia believes in “one thousand friends, zero enemies” (with an interesting exception of Israel, of course (!)). For China to be sure that Indonesia will stick to Beijing, it will require Indonesia to distant itself bit-by-bit from Washington. Indonesia has the possibility, in this case, to be an interesting chessboard between China and its increasing assertiveness in the region, and the United States and its ‘rebalancing’ strategy started in 2011.

Now, the prospect of both China and Indonesia to co-rule Asia is a bit bleak, unless if seen this way: Indonesia becomes the Southeast Asian leader, and China the Northeast Asian leader. I remember Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver’s idea that both subregions are actually united after the Cold War into an East Asian supercomplex. Imagine in that scenario, the region is co-ruled (although not necessarily in equal) by China and Indonesia. It is possible, even if a bit distant.

What we may see in the nearest future is Chia will become more actively engaging in diplomacy in the region, and Indonesia will increase its diplomatic credentials. Both countries may stop from being a regional superpower (of course, not even Indonesia has all the requirements), yet its influence in the region will increase, and for that, we can be quite sure.

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