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Can Australia and Indonesia work together on challenges in the South China Sea?

Australia and Indonesia are official non-claimants of the South China Sea. Shutterstock

Can Australia and Indonesia work together on challenges in the South China Sea?

China is inching closer to its objective of de facto control of the South China Sea. The US has responded by regularly sending warships and helicopters. Yet, this seems unlikely to deter China’s incursions in the South China Sea and might continue to increase tensions between the US and China.

Australia and Indonesia have shared interests in seeing peace and security in the South China Sea, as their prosperity is tied to its trade lanes. But to minimise the risks of conflict, the two middle powers should focus on challenges arising from this maritime region, like illegal fishing.

Middle power co-operation?

Australian and Indonesian scholars have long debated how the two countries should react, respectively, to South China Sea disputes. But, recently, there has been discussion on how middle powers, including Australia and Indonesia, can play constructive roles in addressing such challenges together.

Middle powers are often vaguely defined as countries that are “neither large nor small” in geopolitical and economic weight. They’re often multilaterally oriented coalition builders working under international law to limit great power ambitions. They also strengthen the influence of smaller powers through the construction of international regimes and organisations.

The idea that middle powers should form a community to tackle the region’s woes is not new. Former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans has called for renewed activism among Asian middle powers to mediate great power relations. Strategists, including Brendan Taylor and William Tow, as well as Sukjoon Yoon and C.J. Jenner, have called for a community of middle powers to help mediate the South China Sea disputes and encourage co-operation in responding to related security challenges.

Australia and Indonesia (and sometimes South Korea) have often been singled out as the middle powers that should lead such a community. They possess relative strategic and economic weight, are official non-claimants in the South China Sea territorial disputes, and have shared security outlooks. They also advocate a rules-based international order to constrain the ambitions of great powers that impinge on the preferences of smaller states.

Viable areas of co-operation?

But could Australia and Indonesia effectively mediate great power tensions together? And is there space for co-operation between the two middle powers to address South China Seas challenges?

Mediation, as Professor Andrew O’Neil has argued, may prove difficult as Canberra and Jakarta are constrained by different strategic challenges.

Australia is too closely aligned with the US to become a “neutral party”. And Indonesia is considered an unofficial claimant in the disputes, as there is an overlap between China’s Nine-Dash Line (a vague demarcation line drawn by China) and the North Natuna Sea.

These factors limit the ability of the two countries to play meaningful roles in mediating tensions in the South China Sea. Nonetheless, there could be room for middle-power co-operation in addressing specific challenges and sources of conflict.

For a start, they can focus on non-traditional maritime security issues, such as illegal fishing and piracy. These have the potential to ignite conflict between states as well.

There is specific need to act on overfishing and illegal fishing in the South China Sea. As discussed in The Conversation last year, the depletion of over-exploited fishery resources has pushed the region’s fishermen further out to sea. Clashes between fishermen and coast guards have become frequent and have the potential to rile up nationalist sentiments in countries involved.

A regional regime has to be constructed to manage the issue of over-fishing. It should ensure sustainable management of fishery resources and the legality of fishing in the high seas.

Australia and Indonesia can play important roles in advocating such a regime. Under President Joko Widodo, Indonesia has placed a priority on addressing illegal fishing. Australia, with its experience and expertise in marine and fisheries management, can offer assistance in capacity-building.

Next year’s inaugural Australia-ASEAN Leaders’ Summit is a great place to initiate conversation on a framework for fisheries management.

Australia and Indonesia should also rejuvenate existing security forums, such as the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting+ and the ASEAN Regional Forum. These get flak for being messy “talk shops”. Scholars and policymakers are also often divided over whether to have more or less security forums.

But these forums provide an important opportunity for interaction among policymakers. Australia and Indonesia have been active in promoting discussions on maritime security issues in these forums. It is necessary to continue this trend.

Middle powers may be inferior in military and economic capabilities compared to great powers. But they can curtail great power ambitions when they co-operate.

What is most necessary from the leadership of middle powers is strong political will. A secure, peaceful region will benefit the national interests of all countries. Thus, all parties should invest their political wills to maintain it.