Authors: Aditya Ristanto and Muhammad Rayhan Faqih Syahfa*
The United States and China Rivalry in Indo-Pacific Region
Last year, Biden’s administration announced Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS) trilateral security partnership. The partnership covers many areas, including quantum technology, artificial intelligence (A.I), cyber technology, hypersonic and counter-hypersonic technology, electronic warfare, and other innovations. However, one interesting point in the AUKUS trilateral security cooperation is the realisation of eight nuclear-powered submarines, which Australia will own before 2040.
Beijing, on the other side, has taken a firm stance against the establishment of the partnership endorsed by the United States, labelling the cooperation as a provocative act, threatening regional stability, and hinting that Australia wants to become a new actor who wants to have nuclear weapons in the Indo-Pacific region.
It does not end here. Washington is also a member of informal strategic dialogue with Australia, India, and Japan called The Quad, whose main objective is to create an open, free, prosperous, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. Recently, the Quad launched IPDMA or Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness, which offers real-time, integrated maritime domain awareness with a satellite-based tracking system that can fully monitor the waters in the territorial sea, especially the South China Sea. The system will allow the United States and its partners to monitor illegal fishing activities in the Indo-Pacific region. At the same time, it is argued that China carries out 95% of the illegal fishing in the South China Sea. The system even can detect illegal fishing vessels that intentionally turn off the transponder as a tool to track the movement of ships.
Meanwhile, China is also trying to expand its military, economic, and political diplomacy influence in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in the countries of the Pacific Island region. One of them was the signing of a security pact between China and the Solomon Islands on April 19, 2022, which became an alarm, especially for the United States. United States Department of State spokesman Ned Price responded, “the broad cooperative nature of the security agreement could open the door for PRC (People’s Republic of China) military forces into the Solomon Islands.”
Furthermore, Washington explicitly responded to China’s security agreement with the Solomon Islands by establishing the US-Pacific summit in September 2022. In addition, Washington pledged to add $810 million in aid to Pacific Island nations over the next decade to address issues such as climate change, economic growth, and natural disasters. However, Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele said the Solomon Islands nation would only agree to sign a deal with the United States after indirect references to China were removed. Jeremiah Manele responded, “There were some references that put us in a position where we will have to choose sides, and we did not want to be placed in a position where we have to choose sides,”
The trilateral security cooperation of AUKUS and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) is an extension of “the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States”. However, the two collaborations state that the goals of establishing AUKUS and IPMDA of the QUAD are to maintain security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. Nevertheless, the exclusion of China from the cooperation makes the real motive for forming AUKUS and the QUAD easy to understand, which was an effort to balance Beijing’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
Indonesia in The Midst of Escalating Indo-Pacific Conflict.
In regards to the free and active foreign policy, Indonesia continues to voice efforts to de-escalate conflict and increase cooperation in conflict resolution efforts and does not express full support for the two partnerships. Indonesia is anxious that the worst-case scenario could happen if all parties involved are not careful in determining their foreign policy.
The existence of AUKUS and IPMDA to counter China’s sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific provokes China as an emerging superpower. Meanwhile, Indonesia faces various short-term and long-term consequences of the tensions that occur due to Indonesia’s position at the heart of the Indo-Pacific region.
Australia, with nuclear-powered submarines, will become a new actor with nuclear weapons in the Indo-Pacific region. It can trigger jealousy that causes other countries in the region to start developing nuclear weapons technology and violating the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
Furthermore, the existence of Australian nuclear-powered submarines that will later pass through the ASEAN region will violate the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) agreement. Australia’s nuclear submarine and the role of US allies and China in the region will challenge ASEAN member states in responding to the significantly increased power of the United States allies and China in the Indo-Pacific.
In the long term, both forms of cooperation and China’s response could provoke a security dilemma in the Indo-Pacific region. If conditions worsen, countries in the Indo-Pacific will be forced to side with the two major competing powers; the United States and China. Other than that, the increased potential for an arms race in the region will force Indonesia and other Indo-Pacific countries to continue to modernise and expand their military capacity. If the situation continues to escalate, the Indo-Pacific region will face political tensions like what happened before during the cold war.
Indonesia’s Free and Active Policy and Response to the Potential Threats in the Indo-Pacific
Retno Marsudi, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Indonesia, responded to the existence of AUKUS by reminding us that no party wants an arms race and power projection that could threaten stability and security in the region. Also, she said that every country needs to adopt a new paradigm in the form of multilateralism cooperation in accordance with the conditions of the times and the goals of each nation, which can have a tangible impact on realising security and peace in the world.
Considering that Indonesia is one of the largest countries in ASEAN, the steps taken by the Indonesian government will significantly impact the creation of stability or conflicts that may occur in the region. Meanwhile, more than a year after the establishment of AUKUS, Indonesia’s response to potential threats is nothing more than public narratives voicing the dangers of conflict escalation and calls for upholding values of peace and international cooperation.
Exploring more deeply related to Indonesia’s free and active foreign policy. Many misconceptions think that Indonesia’s free and active foreign policy means that Indonesia must take an abstention stance and be neutral towards any conflicts that occur in the world.
Meanwhile, Indonesia’s former first vice president, Mohammad Hatta’s speech in “Paddling Between Two Corals”, explained that Indonesia’s free and active foreign policy must be understood in context and in line with the philosophical and constitutional foundations of the Indonesian state, Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution.
The importance of Indonesia’s firmness and alignment with world peace and humanity is the sacred mandate contained in the fourth paragraph of the opening of the 1945 Constitution, which reads, “participate in the execution of world order which is by virtue of freedom, perpetual peace, and social justice.”
Best efforts for Indonesia
Now is the time for Indonesia to recognise the relevance of security issues in the Indo-Pacific region. Indonesia must try to prevent the worst scenario by the cause of political power involving the US and China in the region from happening. Therefore, Indonesia needs to be more careful in designing its future foreign policies.
In dealing with tensions and threats of conflict in the Indo-Pacific region, Indonesia’s diplomacy in the future must be able to read world geopolitical developments carefully and be more assertive. Indonesia must take a firm stance to reduce the escalation of conflict and try to prevent countries in the Indo-Pacific region from being carried away by political turmoil that will result in countries of the Indo-Pacific region must facing the condition of choosing sides as the consequences of intensifying rivalry between US and China in the region.
In addition, Indonesia currently does not have a particular institution to determine strategic policies related to national security. Indonesia’s national security council needs to be formed as soon as possible. For the reason that it is crucial for Indonesia to formulate its national security policy with comprehensive decision-making and integrated policy formulation.
Moreover, Indonesia’s foreign policy so far still does not affect the de-escalation of conflicts and tensions in the region. Indonesia’s assertiveness needs to be shown more concretely. If necessary, Indonesia must be a pioneer in building a movement with Indo-Pacific countries, especially the big countries in ASEAN and countries in the Pacific Islands, which have the spirit and character of upholding the value of world peace, similar to the Non-Aligned Movement that existed during the cold war as a symbol of concern about potential threats that could jeopardise the security and stability of the Indo-Pacific region.
*Muhammad Rayhan Faqih Syahfa is a master’s student in the Security & Strategic Study Program at Macquarie University, whose research focuses on strategic security studies.