It’s In No One’s Interest to See Southeast Asia Become a Ground for Proxy Tensions: Indonesian Envoy

In an interview ahead of the India-ASEAN Commemorative summit, Indonesian envoy Suryodipuro talks about ASEAN unity and the role of outside powers in the region.

Indonesia’s ambassador to India Sidharto Reza Suryodipuro. Credit: Twitter

New Delhi: Southeast Asia should not again become a proxy battleground for competition between major global powers, Indonesia’s ambassador to India Sidharto Reza Suryodipuro said, even as he urged countries, including China and India, to cooperate on connectivity projects in the region.

Later this week, leaders of the member states of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) will be chief guests at the annual Republic Day parade in New Delhi. This will be the culmination of celebrations to mark 25 years of India-ASEAN dialogue partnership.

This will be the third time that an Indonesian leader will be at the VVIP podium on Rajpath. In fact, the chief guest at the first Republic Day was Indonesian president Sukarno. This was followed by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2011.

With Indonesia being the largest economy in ASEAN, Jakarta’s position on regional tensions over the South China Sea and security architecture has become critical.

In an interview with The Wire ahead of the India-ASEAN Commemorative summit, Indonesian envoy Suryodipuro spoke about ASEAN unity and the role of outside powers in the region.

Here are some edited excerpts:

How would you describe the current state of India’s relationship with ASEAN countries? 

While we may look at anniversaries as the adding of years, we celebrate the longevity of the relationship. We look at it as an addition of one more landmark. You know it is 25 years of India-ASEAN, 15 years of summit-level meetings and five years of strategic partnership.

But we are also celebrating the changes that have taken place in 25 years. That includes ASEAN coming out of superpower proxy tensions 25 years ago, and it was only a few years later in the late 1990s that all Southeast Asian nations came under the ASEAN umbrella. We are celebrating India’s transformation within 25 years, including its Look East and Act East policy. Also, that the relationship has evolved from something that was factual, technical into something that is comprehensive and strategic. So, we are celebrating all of that.

That said, change is also a constant. We shouldn’t be surprised or caught off-guard by change, and change is happening within our societies, change is happening at a regional and a global level.

What changes are you referring to?

There are some countries that are retreating or declining behind borders. There are some countries that are physically pushing outwards their borders. Some countries are looking to strengthen international norms, institutions, international law. Other countries are flouting them.

Do you think that the main challenge that ASEAN faces now is the flouting of international law?

ASEAN is in a region that is strategic. It is in the interest of Southeast Asian countries to make sure that all countries support it and all countries support the access of others. This we can achieve through norms, through diplomacy, through the strengthening of institutions.

But ASEAN unity has been fraying in recent years. How will the countries deal with this? Can this become worse?

Well, unity is a process. It cannot be taken for granted, it is something that you have to nurture continuously. There were reasons why decades ago Southeast Asia came together under one umbrella. I believe that these underlying reasons continue to be there.

Of course, as a group, we have to deal with the dynamics within our societies, our countries. We have to also deal with dynamics outside of us. What is important when we think about the challenges, the opportunities from outside of the region or in the region, is how to make sure everybody play a positive part. Diplomacy is important to bring out the good in everybody. And what ASEAN does is provide a platform for everybody to meet, greet and discuss issues.

Would you consider the frequent meeting between leaders under the aegis of ASEAN a key ingredient for the group’s success?

Sometimes people criticise such meetings as a talk show. You need to begin by talking. It doesn’t happen just like that. Everything starts by talking. Even before you meet a partner, you have to talk first before you get married.

President Ram Nath Kovind with Indonesia’s ambassador to India Sidharto Reza Suryodipuro. Credit: Twitter

Do you think that the promise of the India-ASEAN relationship as that of a balancing partnership in the region has been fulfilled?

Change is constant, big countries are emerging or re-emerging and they bring their own vision and ambition to the region. We want to ensure that the regional dialogue platforms will continue to be able to manage the emergence of these countries, thus creating an upward spiral of relationship and helping avoid the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

It is for all countries to take the responsibility of nurturing and supporting a region that is rule-based, open and inclusive. It is certainly in no one’s interest to have a Southeast Asia that becomes ground for proxy tension of major countries as we had in the past. We know where that led us. We all have a stake in the security and prosperity of Southeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific, that’s why we all had agreed to set up the regional institutions and adopted certain norms.

It is understood that maritime security will be the cornerstone of the declaration at the ASEAN-India commemorative summit. How does ASEAN define maritime security and what kind of cooperation does it seek from external actors?

I’ll start by being honest with you. I haven’t seen the declaration and I am not part of its deliberations. So, I am not going to pretend to be an expert on it.

But, in terms of maritime security, the interest ultimately is to have waters that are open and safe for all lawful navigation, in accordance with the law of the sea. In addition to that, we could have cooperation to strengthen linkages on safety of ships, ports, actions against illegal fishing and piracy.

All of these are increasingly important, because in no time in human history have we all moved to the ocean in greater numbers. Under-water, below the water, on the sea bed, there are more vessels than ever before. So, obviously we need laws, regulations, norms, institutions to govern all of this. I would even say that in the world there are no waters that are more to the interest of the most major powers than in Southeast Asia.

Maritime cooperation is something that India has collaborated bilaterally on with some countries in Southeast Asia. India and Indonesia had even issued a separate joint statement on maritime cooperation. How can we cooperate through the rubric of ASEAN?

We build layers of networks of cooperation. For example, in the case of Indonesia and India, we have coordinated patrol between Andaman and Sumatra. Maybe, we can build on this by involving other countries. That’s a possibility, certainly. Or, perhaps, on regional mechanisms for fighting illegal fishing.

How does ASEAN cooperate with other countries on maritime security?

Within ASEAN, it is search and rescue and disaster relief. With India, it is in both in the ASEAN platform, in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADDM) and ADDM plus.

At the political level, it is at the East Asia Summit. So, India is actually already part of that network of cooperation. But, specifically with ASEAN, we develop on those sectors of cooperation that are happening bilaterally and regionally.

India does have excellent relations with individual countries in Southeast Asia. Why is it critical for India to strengthen ties with the regional group?

On the perspective of India, you have to ask my Indian counterparts. But, from my own perspective, one usefulness of ASEAN is that it provides a platform that everybody can agree on. We are not the strongest of countries, therefore, it is very useful. It has been perceived to be so successful precisely because everybody agrees that this is a good meeting place, a good place to come and talk. And, importantly, everybody agrees that this should be an area open for everybody.

If I understand you correctly, the ASEAN platform gives a psychological boost to the member nation’s self-perception in their relations with the bigger powers.

Not only psychological, it is geo-political as well. At the end of the Cold War, all of us were wondering what is going to happen. So, we devised institutions in which everybody would have a stake. So, on top of ASEAN came the ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum), as well as, the Asia-Pacific economic cooperation (APEC). There are other institutions on top of ASEAN and ARF, such as the ASEAN plus three and then East Asia summit.

Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman in a meeting with the defence minister of Indonesia Ryamizard Ryacudu, to further enhance defence cooperation between the the two nations. New air and naval bilateral joint exercises were discussed, amongst other areas of cooperation. Credit: Twitter

We have been hearing the phrase ‘Indo-Pacific’ a lot recently. Does ASEAN also subscribe to this term of the larger oceanic space?

Well, ASEAN’s first and foremost concern is its own region. And that is justifiable because everybody is concerned about that region. But, when you talk about its members like, Indonesia and the Philippines, they may be concerned about western Pacific. In Indonesia, for example, we have what we call a Southwest Pacific dialogue, we are a member of the Melanesian Spearhead group. We are observers at Pacific Islands Forum. And, then on the Indian Ocean side, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia are all part of Indian-Ocean Rim Association (IORA).

Obviously, there is an interest in the Indian Ocean but countries on the Pacific side may consider it as being two-part. In the case of APEC, we created the ASEAN caucus within APEC. In IORA, there is no such thing as ASEAN caucus, but it is not something that is impossible.

Several countries are sponsoring connectivity projects in Southeast Asia. You had spoken at a recent seminar about the need to build networks between these projects. Why is that required?

Everybody brings something good to the table. Some bring capital, some bring expertise, some bring higher quality standards to the table. All of this should not be seen as competition. Well, at least, it may be seen as a competition in a good way. But, it should be seen as a mutually reinforcing. We should find ways to synergise them. This is something that everybody should agree on, I think.

China’s connectivity projects in Southeast Asia are part of its One Belt, One Road initiative, on which India has concerns. How would you then expect India to cooperate with China on connectivity?

I understand the issues between India and China, but none of those issues exist in Southeast Asia. There are shortcomings in various connectivity schemes in Southeast Asia. But that is why we should work together, because these initiatives come separately. So, maybe it is also a good time to exchange notes and see what kind of visions we have. Once we do that, it may not be too different, what the visions are.

Speaking of connectivity, why is air connectivity between India and ASEAN continuing to be a big issue?

We have 28 flights serviced by Indonesian carriers. We have Batik Air flying from Chennai to Medan and to Denpasar. We have Indonesia Air flying from Denpasar to Mumbai and Kolkata. We have Garuda Indonesia flying to Mumbai. The number of Indian tourists going to Indonesia in 2017 increased by about 25%. I was told that the number of Indian tourists going to Indonesia is as large as that going to Germany. Probably the rate of growth is a lot more for Indonesia.

This is very good from a tourism, economic and strategic perspective. But we need to do more. We need to have more flights. We need to have more Indonesians coming to India. We want to see the rate of growth of Indian tourists to Indonesia continue. But Indian carriers need to fly to Indonesia with direct flights. I have made requests to meet with their CEOs so that we can talk about this.

The article appeared in the Wire on 22/1/2018

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