ASEAN is in a state of disarray over how to handle China. Whether intentional or not, Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea have managed to polarize the Southeast Asian organization to a thus far unseen extent. Some member states seek a strong collective approach to South China Sea disputes with the Chinese, while others think sovereignty issues are best dealt with bilaterally. This gap is proving all but impossible to bridge.
On ASEAN’s pro-China/anti-China continuum, Indonesia has generally found itself close to the middle. It arguably embodies the “ASEAN Way” of neutrality and non-intervention more than any other member state. Thus it was no surprise to see that Indonesia, although not the current ASEAN chair, was the one trying to pick up the pieces after the association’s disastrous summit in Phnom Penh several weeks ago.
It is against this backdrop that Indonesia will be opening talks with China about strengthening defense cooperation. The proposal is not new, of course, and its implications are not far-reaching from a military standpoint: Jakarta wants to start building Chinese anti-ship missiles locally to inject some momentum into its nascent military modernization program.
But Indonesia has picked a sensitive time to start working on joint defense projects with China. If ASEAN is going to overcome its current divisions, it needs its most important member to be the rock of stability and impartiality at its center. An Indonesia that’s too close to China will cease to be the rallying point for the association’s other nine members.
Indonesian officials were of course quick to argue that the joint missile project is not in any way political. That may be true, but this is not how it looks from the Philippines or Vietnam’s perspective. What they see is China trying to court Indonesia, just as it has courted other Southeast Asia countries – very successfully – in the past. As well as helping Indonesia to set up its new missile-manufacturing base, Beijing has offered to donate weapon systems and train Indonesian air force pilots. China has also proposed supplying Indonesia with new coastal radar systems, following talks in June between Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro and the commander of China’s Second Artillery Corps, General Jing Zhiyuan.
China offers technology, expertise and resources that Indonesia’s needs as it attempts to build a modern, combat-effective military. It probably also offers those things on better terms than the other countries that Jakarta has considered partnering with. Nor would Indonesia be the first ASEAN country to conclude that the positives of accepting Chinese assistance outweigh the negatives.
At the same time, Indonesia’s leaders cannot fail to see the gravitational effects that China is having on the constellation of Southeast Asian states, pulling some in one direction and the others in the opposite one. The country can benefit enormously from well-judged engagement with China. But Indonesia’s status as ASEAN’s anchor in the swirling currents of Asian geopolitics means it cannot shift its fundamental position on China – one of neutrality, rather than alignment – without uprooting the regional order.