Trefor Moss says the Indonesian proposal for a peace treaty for the region would be a great idea – if only everyone wasn’t so blinded by hatred.
Everyone else in East Asia knows how to behave – with practised disdain for those around them. China hates Japan. Vietnam hates China. Everybody hates North Korea. North Korea hates everybody. Basically, we all know where we stand.
Indonesia used to play by the same rules: the cornerstone of its foreign policy was once the “Crush Malaysia” campaign. But those days are long gone. Now Jakarta goes its own way, calling for peace, of all things – not just in East Asia, but across the entire Indo-Pacific region (which also includes India and Pakistan, and they really hate each other).
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa recently called specifically for a new “Indo-Pacific-wide treaty of friendship and co-operation”, which he says is needed to arrest “the all-too-familiar vicious cycle of tensions” the region finds itself trapped in.
He has a point. Asia is becoming freer, wealthier and more interconnected – but not friendlier. Marty is right about the need for a new treaty, because the agreements and associations we have aren’t working.
And if anyone can make such a treaty fly, it’s Indonesia. The region’s other big players – especially China, Japan and the US – carry too much baggage; any proposals they make are received with suspicion. Indonesia, by contrast, has become the acceptable face of developing Asia: newly democratised, avowedly non-aligned, no longer intent on crushing anyone, and yet big enough to make a difference. So maybe Indonesia can make this treaty happen.
Unfortunately, liking Indonesia isn’t the issue – the snag is everyone’s dislike of everyone else. Marty says there are three problems that the new treaty needs to fix: the “trust deficit” between Asian states; unresolved territorial disputes; and managing change in the region.
The trust deficit will be hard to overturn when an expanding China constantly upsets its neighbours; when the US forges ahead with its strategic pivot to Asia; when Japanese leaders make crass remarks about wartime atrocities; and when members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations squabble at their own meetings.
Actually, the trust deficit looks like low-hanging fruit compared with the bitter thorns of Asia’s territorial disputes. Take China’s row with the Philippines over who owns Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. The dispute is now in arbitration by a UN tribunal under to the terms of an international treaty, which both Beijing and Manila have ratified. That’s a grown-up way to resolve an international dispute. Except that China is refusing to take part. It rejects the tribunal, even though it has signed a treaty that legally binds it to the process.
This tells us two things: there are those in Asia who have no intention of resolving their territorial disputes peacefully; and that, while Marty might get China to sign his new treaty, that doesn’t mean China will do what it says.
Then there’s managing change in the region. This is Asia – everything is changing: politics, economics, the environment, and most of all the structure of power. Everything, that is, except those age-old grudges that demand, with all the weight of history, that Marty’s good idea won’t deliver peace.
Trefor Moss is an independent journalist based in Hong Kong and a former Asia-Pacific editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly.