An Indo-Pacific Treaty: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?
Image Credit: Wikicommons

An Indo-Pacific Treaty: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?


With the Indo-Pacific concept now in diplomatic and strategic vogue, as annunciated by Rory Medcalf amongst others, there is room to more concisely refine what it means for the region. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has helped do just that at the recent Indonesia Conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. He took the opportunity to propose an Indo-Pacific “Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation” in his keynote address. Listening to Natalegawa’s speech was reminiscent of a somewhat similar concept proposed under Australia’s former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

At the zenith of his premiership in 2009, Rudd called for a pan Asia-Pacific Community to incorporate the disparate regional architecture under one organizational roof, to be "able to engage in the full spectrum of dialogue, cooperation, and action on political matters and future challenges related to security." The idea earned a frosty reception throughout the region, and quickly died. In particular, China never warmed to it. WikiLeaks cables released in late 2010 (after Rudd was deposed as prime minister) revealed that his true intentions were to use the community to “contain” China’s growing regional influence.

So how is Natalegawa’s idea different? It calls for a new paradigm entirely, parallel to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia.  Natalegawa outlined three key areas that could be addressed in the Indo-Pacific under his notion of a regional friendship treaty: the trust deficit; unresolved territory disputes; and managing change in the region. The foreign minister noted that a lack of trust could lead to open conflict and emphasized the need for clear, open communications between state actors. He also implicitly sought to link building the modalities of that trust to his idea of a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.

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The “management” (note that this is not necessarily “resolution”) of territorial disputes and dealing with rival claims (notably in the South China Sea) is also a key area. Again, Natalegawa linked this back to trust and communication, warning that every effort must be made to avoid strategic miscalculation that could spark conflict. Finally, he made a levelheaded observation about change in the Indo-Pacific: it will not cease. He emphasized that the region will continue to change inherently and naturally with no single end point of arrival through an economic, security, or political lens. He underlined that this is the core reason for a new paradigm for management in bilateral and multilateral scenarios in the Indo-Pacific. His treaty would add to the patchwork or regional architecture, not attempt to replace it all as Rudd envisioned with his Asia-Pacific community.

In essence Natalegawa’s diplomatic clarion call for this treaty can be seen in a similar vein as Rudd’s Asia-Pacific community, but has a greater chance of success because of its terminology and underlying values. The three-legged formula Natalegawa outlined in his speech is one that most, if not all states in the region could support. Signing onto a treaty that promotes trust, communication, and management of differences in a changing environment has more appeal than Rudd’s more concrete architectural intent. The Asia-Pacific Community had an underlying motive of containing one actor or set of actors; in contrast, Natalegawa has made clear that the key primer for this treaty would be to strive for sustained peaceful cooperation, with some episodes of competition more than likely to occur.

Still, the elephant in the room is China. Hardly the poster child for extensive multilateral engagement, convincing China to come on board will be the fundamental make or break for any such Indo-Pacific treaty. Here, both Australia and the U.S. have key diplomatic roles to play. Given the increased bilateral engagement that both countries have had with China in recent years, a diplomatic offensive in selling the merits of any such treaty should be undertaken by Canberra and Washington. Australia in particular should put this to the top of the priority list in the newly minted bilateral ministerial strategic talks.

It would be intellectually lazy to consign the Indo-Pacific idea to a monolithic set of ideals or architectural design. The concept will remain fluid within a fluid context. But the notion of a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation is one that could ultimately prove to be a lynchpin of stability in an ever dynamic and changing region.

This concept is still in its infancy. Natalegawa may succeed where Rudd failed. Watch this space.

Jack Georgieff is a visiting Thawley Scholar from the Lowy Institute with the office of the Japan Chair at CSIS.

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