Joseph Chinyong Liow, For The Straits Times

What to make of Indonesia's Indo-Pacific Treaty

As the presidency of Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono draws to a close, assessments of his two terms will come fast and furious. One dimension of the discussion will surely be Indonesian foreign policy.

Under Dr Yudhoyono, Indonesia has sought to fashion for itself a role of regional leadership.

This took the form of a string of regional initiatives, the most recent being the suggestion of an Indo-Pacific Treaty.

On May 16 last year, Indonesia's dynamic Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa proposed the signing of an Indo-Pacific Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation during a keynote address at a conference in Washington, DC.

The minister had said: "I am of the view that we should be ready to work towards an Indo-Pacific-wide treaty of friendship and cooperation.

"A commitment by states in the region to build confidence, to solve disputes by peaceful means and to promote a concept of security that is all-encompassing. Underscoring that security is a common good."

The backdrop for this proposal was what Dr Natalegawa identified as three key areas that might potentially destabilise the region: A "trust deficit" between some states in the region, the existence of unresolved territorial claims and a rapid transformation of regional states that affects the relationships between them.

The intent of the treaty, as he described, was "the promotion of a sense of common responsibility in the endeavour to maintain the region's peace and stability".

Last December, Dr Yudhoyono took the discussion a step further by proposing that the treaty take the form of a legally binding framework.

To give it depth, the treaty would adopt the edifice of Asean's 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, also known as TAC, and apply it to the Indo-Pacific region.

The choice of TAC was premised on the belief, echoed in Asean circles, that it had been critical to the maintenance of peace and mitigation of distrust within Asean, where members periodically have disputes with each other.

At the same time, the Indo-Pacific Treaty would arguably be more ambitious, given that it would also "anticipate conflict in the region, offering a pre-emptive mechanism for conflict prevention and resolution".

Read carefully: The subtext here is intervention, which departs from Asean's sacrosanct non-intervention principle.

What is one to make of this Indo-Pacific Treaty?

It would be churlish to dismiss it as mere rhetoric. But the point should be made that while it appears to be a novel initiative, the ideas behind it are hardly new.

The notion that a mechanism is required to anticipate conflict sounds suspiciously like the Asean Regional Forum's numerous failed attempts to introduce preventive diplomacy into its activities, while Asean's TAC already has more than 30 High Contracting Parties, far more than what the Indo-Pacific Treaty would cover.

Even if the geographical scope of the Indo-Pacific Treaty is widened, say, to cover the Indian Ocean, the fact that TAC failed to arrest tensions over competing claims in the South China Sea would invariably cast doubts over the utility of a treaty that takes after it. While the abstract exercise of identifying the Indo-Pacific as a geopolitical entity may be intellectually edifying, transforming the concept into a policy reality and giving it institutional expression is an altogether different, and far more challenging, enterprise.

Dr Natalegawa's message of how security is a common good, or that the security of regional states are interlinked, is a timely reminder of their collective interest in regional stability.

But to get from that to the establishment of an institution in the form of a treaty requires a great leap.

While Indonesia's effort to table the idea is laudable, the question remains whether it can make it happen.

Thus far, there is little indication how such a treaty is going to come into being.

Even if it eventually does materialise, it is difficult to see how or why an Indo-Pacific Treaty would be a game-changer, when the many existing institutions and mechanisms have struggled to ameliorate tension among regional states.

Indonesian foreign policy today is vaulting in its ambition.

However, the devil is always in the details.

Whether it is the Bali Democracy Forum, Jakarta International Defence Dialogue or the proposal for an Indo-Pacific Treaty, Jakarta's lofty goals have not always been accompanied by clear blueprints detailing how to achieve them.

So, will the government of Mr Joko Widodo, to be sworn in on Monday, fare any better?

Possible, but unlikely.

Beset by domestic challenges inherited from its predecessor and an unrelenting opposition which commands a parliamentary majority, the government of Mr Joko will not likely have the bandwidth, resources or energy to expend on the level of international diplomacy its predecessors sought to engage in.

This is not to say that Indonesia has nothing to contribute to regional stability, or that it has no role to play in managing regional order. Far from that.

Indeed, a close look at Indonesia's diplomatic successes in history recalls the instrumental role that Jakarta played as Asean's interlocutor with Vietnam during the conflict with Cambodia in the 1980s, and as facilitator and mediator for peace between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front in 1996.

It would also recall how Dr Natalegawa's personal shuttle diplomacy in 2012 salvaged Asean's reputation after the debacle of the July ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh that year.

Even though Jakarta's offer in 2012-2013 to send observers to facilitate a resolution of the Thai-Cambodian border conflict was rejected by Thailand, it still contributed to the creation of a climate of restraint.

What these cases share in common is the low-key, restrained yet resolute and instrumental nature of Indonesian diplomacy, not the articulation of big, abstract ideas.

Therein lies Indonesia's best bet for effective regional leadership.

The writer is professor of comparative and international politics and associate dean at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, and Lee Kuan Yew Chair in Southeast Asia Studies at the Brookings Institution in the United States.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

S.E.A. View is a weekly column on Southeast Asian affairs.