Uncertainty: New normal for regional security (Part 1 of 2)

Jusuf Wanandi

Vice chair, Board of Trustees, CSIS Foundation


Jakarta   /  Wed, September 12, 2018  /  09:49 am

Navy personnel of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea April 12, 2018. Picture taken April 12, 2018. (Reuters/Stringer)

The new normal for security developments in East Asia, the Asia Pacific and the Indo-Pacific is uncertainty. Actually, relative power adjustment was initiated during the Obama administration in its attempt to respond to the challenge from China by “rebalancing the strategic presence” of the United States in the Asia Pacific region, but it was unsuccessful. China’s rise constitutes a strategic rivalry in the US’ eyes, and Washington’s strategic response thereto is a new idea, named Indo-Pacific cooperation. 

Initially the US considered this as a security cooperation starting with the Quad or Quadrilateral Security Cooperation among the US, Japan, India and Australia since 2007, renewed in 2017, according to the US 2017 National Security Strategy. However, the Indo-Pacific idea has many interpretations and garners many different supporters.

President Xi Jinping is driving China’s rise for longer-term purposes and extending his attention to foreign affairs, to some extent departing from former leader Deng Xiaoping’s advice for China not to show off as a great power. 

A case in point was when China pushed hard to prevent the results of the case brought by the Philippines to the international tribunal in 2015-2016, which favored Manila’s claim to part of the South China Sea, from having any legally binding effect.

This effort showed China’s lack of experience in dealing with international affairs. Historically, China was used to playing solo during the imperial period, dubbed its “Middle Kingdom syndrome”, until it experienced dealing with dominant Western colonial powers. Meanwhile, domestic pressure has been growing for China to show off its extraordinary achievements, especially in the economy.  

Recently, China changed course, especially in its relations with neighboring countries, including ASEAN members. Beijing has become less assertive in dealing with South China Sea matters, and agreed with ASEAN to move the Code of Conduct (COC) process toward a possible conclusion. It has accepted the principles or pillars of the agreement in the “Preamble” of the prospective document and is willing to put further efforts on the articles in order to conclude the process in a respectable timeframe.

With Japan and South Korea, the trilateral cooperation of the Northeast Asian countries will hopefully bring about a modus vivendi for future cooperation. China is expected to better understand that its strong reactions and policies toward the region are not working, but creating apprehension just because of its size.

I, for one, have found that China is willing to listen, and to follow a diplomatic or political path to achieve its objectives and policies when its representatives understand the issues better. Meanwhile, we in the region should also understand that, with the changing power relations in the region, not everything China would like to do is a mistake or overreach, and not everything the US would like to do is alright and should be followed.

If ASEAN ever wants to act as an interlocutor, as its centrality policy implies, it has to be fair to both and trusted by both. This requires much restraint and patience on ASEAN’s side; more importantly, ASEAN should promote its intellectual and institutional capacities, to show it is up to the task of playing its role. 

ASEAN, which has achieved peace and development in Southeast Asia for the last 50 years, should be able to change itself to become a regional organization that can play the central role it aspires to. ASEAN has to achieve that for its own interest in the region. 

When it comes to the Indo-Pacific constructs, it should be clear that ASEAN is not dealing with the Quad, which is a security cooperation arrangement possibly meant to encircle China.

For ASEAN, Indo-Pacific cooperation should include many fields of cooperation with a wide membership base including Indian Ocean countries, particularly India, since it is facing the China-US competition. 

Ideally, this regional organization should be open, inclusive and based on ASEAN’s centrality as contained in the East Asian Summit (EAS). 

The EAS is becoming a more effective cooperation platform, as the main countries in the region beside ASEAN are present: the US, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and India plus Australia and New Zealand. East Asia should be assured of its recognition as an important part of the Indo-Pacific cooperation. Consequently, ASEAN will be more credible when the East Asian region is included. 

On security matters, US President Donald Trump appears keen to keep the US presence in East Asia through the Indo-Pacific concept, which also includes countries around the Indian Ocean. 

Although he generally does not believe in multilateral cooperation, he still recognized the Indo-Pacific concept, as shown in the US 2017 National Security Strategy, but first in the context of the Quad between the US, Japan, India and Australia. Later on the Quad’s membership could be added, and its concerns could include economic and cultural issues.

This is also the case with trade, which Trump intends to completely overhaul until US’ interest becomes the paramount factor. That is why he tends to deal with each country on a one-on-one basis, so that the US can impose total control over the deal for its interest.

That is also how Trump will deal with the European Union. Trump pays special attention to China in trade issues, and meanwhile strikes a deal with the EU to negotiate bilateral non-tariff trade and to initiate reforms of the World Trade Organization to push China to change.


The writer is the vice chair of the Board of Trustees at the CSIS (Centre for Strategic and International Studies) Foundation in Jakarta.