Indonesia takes ownership of Indo-Pacific geopolitics: The Jakarta Post columnist

Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi said Indonesia this year would deploy its diplomacy not only in the Asia-Pacific region, but also across the vast Indian Ocean.
Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi said Indonesia this year would deploy its diplomacy not only in the Asia-Pacific region, but also across the vast Indian Ocean.PHOTO: REUTERS

In his commentary, the writer takes up Indonesia's quiet pursuit of the Indo-Pacific regionalism concept.

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - It's official. Indo-Pacific as a geopolitical concept has made it into Indonesia's foreign-policy lexicon. And Indonesia is already moving on to put its markers while most other nations in the region have still not caught on.

Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi said Indonesia this year would deploy its diplomacy not only in the Asia-Pacific region, but also across the vast Indian Ocean.

"Indonesia continues to fight to turn the Indian Ocean into a zone of peace, and to build a greater sense of regionalism around the ocean," Retno said in her annual foreign policy speech on Jan. 9.

This is not exactly a pivot from the traditional way of looking at the region as strictly Asia-Pacific or East Asia, as some countries, including the United States under President Donald Trump have done. But this is the first time that the Indo-Pacific concept has been discussed at length in a foreign-policy statement.

Indonesia, out of its own national interests, will pursue both regionalisms, through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

"Amid the global and regional political changes, Southeast Asia, which is located at the crossroads between the Indian and Pacific oceans, must continue to remain a peaceful and open region. Indonesia, with other Asean nations, must be the main player in the establishment of any regional architecture," the minister said.

The role of Asean is important as the 50-year regional organization has been in the driver's seat when it comes to building regional structures, including the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum and the East Asia Summit.

"Indonesia, with Asean, will continute to contribute to the strengthening of positive and inclusive cooperation, and not cooperation based on suspiscions or even threat perceptions," the minister said.

The Indo-Pacific concept originated from India, and Australia soon joined in as they sought to promote it as an alternative way of looking at the region, obviously for reasons strategic to their own interests.

Indo-Pacific gained ground when President Trump used the term in all his speeches during his tour of Asia in November, avoiding "Asia Pacific" completely. China sees an American conspiracy in this shift as an attempt to weaken its influence in Asia.

But make no mistake that Indonesia is not doing this to follow Trump's move, although the timing unfortunately may make it seem so.

The Indo-Pacific concept is consistent with President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's vision of building Indonesia as a maritime nation, even a maritime power some way down the road.

In his debut at the East Asia Summit in Naypyidaw in 2014, Jokowi explained his idea of a global maritime fulcrum, saying Indonesia "must assert itself as a force between two oceans: The Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean."

Located at the centre where the two oceans meet, Indonesia, rather than Australia, which is at the fringe, is better placed to take the initiative in developing the regional concept. In other words, the Indo-Pacific concept is not likely to take off without Indonesia's endorsement or active role.

Indonesia also controls four vital sea lanes of communication for international trade and shipping, namely the busy Malacca, Sunda, Lombok and Makassar straits, three of which link the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Indonesia has quietly started developing Indo-Pacific regionalism.

During its tenure as chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) last year, Indonesia hosted the group's first summit after 20 years of existence, and held no less than 30 meetings before handing over the baton to South Africa in November.

The Jakarta Concord, issued at the summit in Jakarta, committed Indian Ocean nations to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the norm to preserve peace and stability in the region.

During a meeting with visiting Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj this month, the two countries agreed to strengthen and deepen their strategic partnership for peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.

A new regional architecture is in the making, and Indonesia is already setting the tone, starting with confidence-building measures through dialogues.

"The regional architecture will be best if built through a building-block approach," Retno said.

The writer is Editor-in-Chief of The Jakarta Post and comments regularly on local and regional affairs. The paper is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media.