Dynamic Equilibrium: Indonesia’s Blueprint for a 21st Century Asia Pacific
March 8, 2013
The term “dynamic equilibrium” has been bandied among Indonesian officials and U.S. interlocutors with surprising frequency since Indonesia assumed the ASEAN chairmanship in 2011. As shorthand for Indonesia’s regional foreign policy goals, the term is not new, but it is widely misunderstood.
Indonesia, as a rising middle power itself, seeks to strengthen the role of middle and rising powers in the Asia Pacific region in order to avoid a regional conflict or condominium of power between the resident superpowers, the United States and China. The knee-jerk reaction has been to see this as a twenty-first-century balance of power strategy, but it is more than that.
Indonesia does not seek an Asia Pacific in which it, the United States, China, India, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Russia avoid conflict only through a balance of force, either individually or in coalition. The preponderance of the United States and China makes such a traditional balance of power improbable, if not impossible. Instead, Indonesia and its like-minded neighbors have set their sights on building a series of regional mechanisms, driven by middle powers, in which none are dominant and none excluded.
This is the heart of the “dynamic equilibrium” idea—the creation and maintenance of a system that builds trust among and norms between all involved. The centerpieces of that system are the expanded ASEAN institutions, including the East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+), and the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (AMF) as well as the web of burgeoning bilateral and trilateral relationships around the region.
The multiplicity of mechanisms involved is precisely why the equilibrium is dynamic, and also why Indonesia hopes it will work. If successful, each Asia Pacific country, especially the two regional giants, would be caught in a web of mutually beneficial relationships and separate forums. There would be no grand coalitions of “us” and “them” cutting across all interests. Such a system could hopefully offer what a balance of power cannot—a situation in which a win for one great power is not necessarily a loss for the other.
The only way such a system of “dynamic equilibrium” can be created is through the voluntary step-by-step immersion of each regional player in the multiplicity of overlapping institutions, with no single power predominant. This is why Indonesia pushed for the inclusion of India, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, and the United States in the ADMM+ and the Expanded AMF. It is also why Indonesia has been hard at work developing an Indian Ocean strategy with India and Australia and why it takes part in the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, which it will chair from late 2015 to late 2017.
Indonesia individually, and ASEAN as a group, recognize that the big question is whether China will agree to this new system. The South China Sea dispute is proving a key test in answering that question. Beijing has been eager to take part in regional economic architecture, but has proved far less comfortable with enmeshing its security and political interests in regional frameworks. Its desire to deal with the multilateral disputes in the South China Sea bilaterally stems from a traditional concept that China, as the larger power, can simply browbeat smaller states into aligning with its interests. But this mindset increasingly clashes with the preferences of both ASEAN and the other Asia Pacific powers to avoid a might-makes-right ethos in the region.
A modest step toward moving China away from such bullying tactics came with the signing of the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The nonbinding agreement has failed for over a decade to resolve the disputes, but in the eyes of Indonesia and most of its fellow ASEAN members, it remains the best hope of a lasting, nonviolent solution. This is why Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa made a whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia last summer to salvage a modicum of agreement following the breakdown of consensus over the South China Sea during the July ASEAN Ministerial Meeting.
It is also why ASEAN members have so eagerly courted, and received, the support of the other seven members of the East Asia Summit—Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the United States—on the issue. If the multilateral process that began with the DOC is allowed to crumble, then the prospects of convincing China that its interests are best served via peaceful, mutually agreed-upon mechanisms do not look good. The same is true if China is allowed to impose its will and drive the process.
To one degree or another, most of the region’s powers have rallied around the goal of a peaceful, institution-driven Asia Pacific, if only implicitly. They have read history and recognize the dangers of U.S.-China rivalry. They are also not excited about the possibility of a U.S.-China condominium of power. Both scenarios would relegate the middle powers to the background, and neither would likely be sustainable. A “dynamic equilibrium” could well prove the best alternative.
The one thing that such a future has working for it is that one of the two great powers in the region, the United States, has at least proved open to the notion. The Obama administration’s “pivot” to the Asia Pacific has focused on engaging and strengthening multilateral institutions as much as bilateral relationships. It has supported but not sought to lead ASEAN in its efforts, creating the right perceptions in the region and avoiding provoking China unnecessarily. It has also engaged in more inclusive multilateral military exercises and has sought creative new mechanisms like the burgeoning U.S.-India-Japan trilateral relationship.
Now the United States should double-down on a “dynamic equilibrium” in the Asia Pacific. It will have neither the ability nor the desire to drive Asia Pacific institutions in the twenty-first century as it did Atlantic ones in the twentieth century. It also does not want a rivalry with a rising China. The best option is therefore to facilitate middle powers to help lead on regional issues. Indonesia should be a lynchpin in that effort, and its “dynamic equilibrium” offers as good a blueprint as any.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the March 7, 2013, issue of Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th & K Streets.)
Gregory Poling is research associate for the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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