Indonesia, Malaysia mull joint deterrence against 'common threats' in Indo Pacific

Indonesia sees Malaysia and Australia as key players, including Vietnam and the Philippines, in forming a stronger common cooperative platform in facing the challenges of China in the Indo-Pacific.

Collins Chong Yew Keat Jan 16, 2023
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Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s official visit to Indonesia has signalled Malaysia’s intent to prioritise the immediate region and important neighbours in strengthening diplomatic consolidation against common challenges facing both nations and the region.

Both are cognisant of past histories and tensions over disputed territories, where although the Sipadan and Ligitan disputes have been decided and settled, the Ambalat dispute in the Celebes Sea remains thorny. Jakarta wants to project its political and diplomatic clout in the region and wanted a strong front in its quest for regional leadership, and possibly stronger deterrence, in facing the main trigger point in the South China Sea with China in mind.

Indonesia began a series of a charm offensive in demonstrating its soft power and diplomatic clout with a view to strengthening ties with ASEAN neighbour states, especially with key players who will be important in working with Indonesia in facing common challenges, particularly from China. With the resolution of the maritime dispute with Vietnam, Indonesia is looking to remove barriers in its ties with Malaysia, its most important ASEAN neighbour, particularly in economy, trade and security aspects.

Regional power ambitions
 
In assuming ASEAN leadership, Jakarta seeks to project it in a positive way in resolving lingering regional disputes and in cementing its claim as not only a regional power but a rising Asian and global player, having recently played host to the G20 summit. 

Jakarta is also keen to play a mediating role in the Ukraine dispute and in giving a message to both ASEAN members and regional players, including China, that it will be ready to step up and claim a stronger presence in strengthening ASEAN through its leadership. Various steps are being taken to bolster Indonesia’s own influence through various strategic and geopolitical moves, including shifting to a new capital Nusantara, and assuming more assertive positions in disputed zones with China. 

Indonesia sees Malaysia and Australia as key players, including Vietnam and the Philippines, in forming a stronger common cooperative platform in facing the challenges of China in the Indo-Pacific. Malaysia will always remain among its key priorities and Jakarta will use its clout as the ASEAN Chair to push for greater momentum in solving disputes with Kuala Lumpur.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, would also want to leverage Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s reformist image while the latter has made it clear that he sees regional players as the key cornerstone in his policy, including ASEAN, as Ibrahim also wanted Malaysia to benefit from the rising power status of Indonesia. 

Message to region

Ibrahim’s visit will be crucial in giving a three-pronged message.  Firstly it gives a message to regional countries that both want their bilateral ties to be the bedrock of ASEAN, and these will be the cornerstone of regional stability that will increasingly portray a united front on regional issues.

Secondly, disputes and tensions face both Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta in the South China Sea and for Jakarta, the increasing tension over Natuna Islands will see the need for it to bolster joint readiness and strength in having a greater deterrent capacity by leveraging on its most important neighbour, including in areas of military and security cooperation.

Thirdly, it sends a message to the EU that both countries will be ready to amplify cooperation and create new mechanisms in protecting their common industries, particularly the palm oil industry, in facing new barriers in the European market. Regional and bilateral solidarity and commitment are seen as an urgently needed front in pushing back Brussels’ selective targeting of this industry for its own commercial interests.  

Both Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta realise the huge potential left untapped for both powers to elevate ties, consolidate strengths and synergise common threats,  rather than letting disputes and strategic bilateral rivalry and distrust ruin better returns. Malaysia needs the support of Indonesia in various areas of interest and survival, but must also be wise in seeing strategic openings in leveraging Indonesia's needs and dependence that will be of importance to Jakarta and the region.

(The author is a Kuala Lumpur-based strategic and security analyst. Views are personal. He can be contacted at collins@um.edu.my)

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