By BRUCE GILLEY
THE biggest news to emerge from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s visit to Asia last week came at a news conference with the Indonesian foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa. Mrs. Clinton acknowledged that Washingtonaccepts Jakarta’s “leadership” in resolving the territorial disputes over the South China Sea — disputes that have led to bellicose rhetoric from China, Vietnam and the Philippines in recent months. A State Department official later toldreporters that, in Washington’s view, “the leading state in the effort is clearly Indonesia.”
But Mr. Natalegawa emphasized that this leadership role “is not meant to be at the expense of any other party. It’s not about us rallying around to counter or to put any other country on the spot or to put them in a corner.”
In short, while Washington has hitched its wagon to Indonesian leadership on the South China Sea, Jakarta has made it clear that it does not intend to act as a proxy for America or for its neighbors, including the Philippines and Vietnam, that are more wary of China — or, for that matter, for China and its allies.
As China’s influence grows, the United States is struggling to come up with an effective strategic response. Some analysts believe that the only option for the countries of the region is to align themselves with Washington or Beijing. But Indonesia’s emergence as a key actor on the South China Sea issue shows that so-called “middle powers” — the 10 to 20 influential states, like South Africa and Australia, that aren’t permanent members of the United Nations Security Council or global giants like Japan, India and Germany — can play an outsize role in defining that response. Through proactive and nonaligned diplomacy, middle powers may be able to influence the rise of China in ways that the United States cannot.
Indonesia is a classic middle power; it is a newly democratic and rapidly developing country with significant military and diplomatic capacities. Another clear example is post-Mubarak Egypt. Its newly elected president, Mohamed Morsi, made a point of heading to China for his first major foreign visit, in August. As with Indonesia, Washington will have to decide if it is willing to let Cairo try to reshape Beijing’s policies on issues like the conflict in Syria (an issue where another middle power, Turkey, is playing a leading role).
Pursuing a middle-power option on conflicts like the South China Sea and Syria would mean allowing friendly countries to take the lead in diplomatic work, because they are less threatening to China. While this may entail some compromises for Washington, it is more likely to generate solutions that Beijing will heed.
Last year, Ding Gong, an international relations analyst influential in Communist Party circles, wrote in the Chinese journal Contemporary International Relations that China should heed Indonesia’s counsel on the South China Sea dispute because it had proven effective in restraining the more hawkish demands of the Philippines and Vietnam. The “cautious” and “balanced” attitude of Jakarta, Mr. Ding wrote, “has ensured that the issue has not become a common cause among Asean” which “enhances China’s diplomacy in the region.” This “balanced attitude” is exactly what Mr. Natalegawa pledged as Mrs. Clinton stood beside him last week.
Mr. Morsi made similar noises during his visit to Beijing. He emphasized that Cairo is “not against anyone” and opined that “international relations between all states are open and the basis for all relations is balance.” China’s top legislator said his country supported a “bigger role” for Egypt on the international stage.
Again, the question for Washington is whether hitching its wagon to this newly unaligned and proactive middle power will advance American interests more than trying to build a pliant coalition of lesser states under American leadership.
Two reasons suggest the middle power option may work best for many of the knottiest issues that Washington will face as it deals with a rising China. One is that these states are mostly democracies and thus are aligned with the principles the United States seeks to advance. (Iran is a glaring exception but one that tends not to take leadership roles as a result.)
Egypt, for instance, is less likely to espouse the “China model” in the Middle East and Africa than it is to advance the “Arab Spring model” in China by showing the Chinese that another great historical civilization is gaining global influence by being democratic.
The other reason is that Washington can win middle powers’ support by using soft power rather than hard power. Earlier this year, for instance, the United States backed a coalition led by Canada, Mexico, Bangladesh, Sweden and Ghana on so-called “short-lived climate forcers” — substances like black carbon, methane and hydrofluorocarbons that are contributing to climate change — and agreed to pay $12 million of the $15 million project cost. China, however, has so far refused to join because it is suspicious that the initiative will produce recommendations that could unduly burden its businesses.
Other examples where Washington could defer to middle power leadership on issues vital to American-Chinese relations include a G-20 working group on reforming the international financial system, led jointly by Australia and Turkey, and South Africa’s role in dampening China’s support for Robert G. Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe.
By contrast, the American attempt to take the lead in controlling nuclear weapons transfers, the Proliferation Security Initiative, has failed to win Chinese cooperation.
There are risks, of course. Middle power leadership can sometimes be amateurish or driven by narrow anti-Americanism. But given the desire of many emerging countries to avoid the appearance of marching to the American drum, it will in many cases be a better choice for Washington in the long term.
Bruce Gilley, an associate professor of political science at Portland State University, is theauthor, most recently, of “The Right to Rule: How States Win and Lose Legitimacy.”