Reconfiguring Foreign Policy Focus: time for an Indo-Pacific region?
In his address to Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit 2017 in Da Nang, Viet Nam, American President Donald Trump was very careful in picking the term for the new focus of United States’ foreign policy. Although the speech was conveyed during an Asia-Pacific conference, Donald Trump barely mentioned the term, and instead used the newly popular Indo-Pacific term.
The Consequence of US Withdrawal from TPP?
While it is too soon to say that this move is merely the consequence of US withdrawal from Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, it is not too soon to say that this move is the direct consequence of US declining prominence in Asia-Pacific.
The new reality in the region is the fact that the United States is losing its grip in Asia-Pacific while China is gaining a standing in the region.
The remaining TPP countries were planning to move forward with TPP-11. Alas, those countries did not formally announce their success in reaching consensus to move forward during the last APEC Summit in Viet Nam, as expected by many experts and international relations actors.
China, which came up with its Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), is optimistic that its free trade framework will attract more countries and promises better outcome to those who join.
During my interview with a Chinese diplomat, he said that China favors its own framework, RCEP, rather than TPP. This might be because RCEP framework is much friendlier to China’s economic system rather than TPP.
To note, RCEP’s membership covers all ASEAN Member States while TPP only include some.
The Consequence of Declining US Presence in Asia-Pacific?
Although it is true that US has a very high strategic interest in Asia-Pacific (shown by US military presence in the region), China’s growing assertiveness starts to undermine US’s presence in Asia-Pacific. The United States is present in Hawaii, Guam, Alaska, Japan, and South Korea among others.
China is getting more assertive, chiefly in two parts of the Asia-Pacific, namely in East China Sea and South China Sea. In East China Sea, the long-lasting dispute of Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands between China and Japan has not yet been settled. While in the South China Sea, China starts to show its assertiveness by claiming the nine dash line, where Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands are the center of the conflict’s gravity.
Another strategic issue in Asia-Pacific is North Korea’s possession of nuclear arsenal. However, under Donald Trump’s administration, the US has taken unprecedented moves such as the usage of undiplomatic words and exchange of insults with North Korean Supreme Leader. Many believe that Trump’s approach to North Korea issue will most likely only worsen US bargaining position in the negotiating table.
US Presence in the Indian Ocean
As the US starts to move its concentration to the Indian Ocean, many other countries like Indonesia, also starts to shift its attention and starts to “look west” to the Indian Ocean.
Indian Ocean is a very strategic region. So many vessels, containing oils from the Middle East to Asia, are passing through this ocean.
More importantly, US Military Base Diego Garcia is also located in the ocean. This military base serves the US military for its strategic interest in the Middle East including Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan.
The newly present China built a military base in Djibouti, where many believes that it could start the contestation between the two great powers, the US and China.
India, who feels that the Indian Ocean is its backyard, believes that it needs to take back control of its backyard.
Unfortunately, China has circumvented India through its rings of pearls — an investment project that spans from Myanmar to Bangladesh, to Sri Lanka, and to Pakistan.
China is also using its One Belt One Road (OBOR) program, especially its Silk Maritime Road to have prominence in the Indian Ocean.
The Deal for Indonesia
Indonesia, who chaired the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) last year, has launched the organization’s first ever summit in Jakarta that resulted in Jakarta Concord. The concord reaffirms IORA Member States’ commitment to UNCLOS — a very dwarf move if compared to its Asia-Pacific counterpart, which has reached an economic stage of cooperation.
Indonesia under Jokowi, which also known for its Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF) initiative, has utilized IORA as a platform to familiarize other countries with its initiative.
China, who is being very assertive with its OBOR initiative, is trying to hook Indonesia who is campaigning for the recognition of Indonesia as the Global Maritime Fulcrum. One of the way China is doing this is by giving Indonesia a loan scheme with a very low interest for Indonesia’s transportation project. Indonesia is in a dire need of foreign investment, especially due to Indonesia’s necessity to fulfill itself to fund many mega projects such as Tol Laut (Sea Highway).
Now Indonesia is also trying to look west, seeing that the Indian Ocean, although very rich of potential, is still very under-explored. However, with stronger players in the region which are fully armed, Indonesia is still far from being another big player in Indo-Pacific “Great Power Contestation”.