by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
As the dust settles from its general election in April, it seems little will change for Indonesia: Joko Widodo (commonly known as Jokowi) will continue to serve as President until at least 2024. However, Indonesia has often distanced itself from regional issues like the South China Sea disputes, and there are important recalibrations of defense policy elsewhere in Southeast Asia that merit attention. In the ongoing rivalry between the United States and China, it is certainly worth following these course changes among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in order to better understand where sympathies might if there is an escalation in the aforementioned great power rivalry.
Of particular interest, Malaysia has indicated that it will release a new defense white paper, which is expected to be tabled in Parliament in November. This will be the first time Malaysia’s Ministry of Defense has released such a strategic document, and it could go some way toward answering lingering questions about the foreign policy orientation of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Since the unexpected victory of Mahathir Mohamad and the Pakatan Haripan coalition in Malaysia’s May 2018 general election, it has been unclear how the country will position itself in the South China Sea disputes. There is even ambiguity as to whether Malaysia will ratify the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a wide-sweeping free trade agreement that also includes Japan, Canada, Mexico, and seven other countries.The forthcoming defense white paper would go some way toward clarifying where Malaysia sees itself in the region and the broader international community. However, some stakeholders, such as the US, might be left disappointed by the contents. One of the more significant foreign policy initiatives pursued in the first year of this new Malaysian government was the establishment of a multi-departmental task force to combat illegal fishing, which was responsible for the capture of 25 Vietnamese fishing vessels in May 2019 alone and the issuance of an official protest note to Hanoi. Malaysia is not the only Southeast Asian country to suffer the effects of illegal fishing – in fact, Indonesia seized two Malaysian-flagged vessels in the Strait of Malacca on suspicion of engaging in just such activities in February 2019 – but the Pakatan Haripan government has taken a harder line. As such, continued efforts to address illegal fishing and resulting disputes with neighbors like Vietnam might occupy a prominent place in the defense white paper.
References in this document to illegal fishing, territorial disputes with Indonesia and Singapore, and the lingering effects of the 2013 Lahad Datu standoff with Philippines-based militants could present “wedge issues” for China, which would not see its expansionist interests in the South China Sea well-served by a coherent ASEAN. As such, much will hinge on Malaysia’s first defense white paper.
Brunei Darussalam has also indicated that it will release its defense white paper in early 2021. Brunei has considerable experience with such strategic documents, and so few surprises are expected there. In March 2019, Bruneian officials announced that the update to the country’s defense strategy would emphasize the role of defense diplomacy, as well as Brunei’s participation in multilateral bodies like ASEAN and, in particular, the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meetings (ADMM). However, any reference to the South China Sea will likely be missing, given that China has invested heavily in the Bruneian economy in recent years, with Hengyi Industries’ $3.4 billion Pulau Muara Besar refinery and petrochemical complex, which is expected to be operational by the end of 2019. Not wanting to imperil such investment into its troubled economy, Brunei’s policy on Chinese expansionism will undoubtedly remain that of acquiescence.
Other regional countries are long overdue for a strategic update, such as Cambodia (whose most recent defense white paper was issued in 2006) and Vietnam (whose own equivalent was last updated in 2009). But Indonesia is likely to be the next ASEAN member state to develop a new strategic document related to national defense. The most recent iteration of this document was published on November 2015, a little over one year after Jokowi was elected to his first term as President of Indonesia. In an election campaign that saw his record on defense issues heavily criticized by his main opponent, Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi secured a second term in April 2019. Although Jokowi won by a significant margin – 55.5% of the vote to Subianto’s 44.5% – this criticism could lead him to direct the country’s Ministry of Defense to revamp Indonesian defense policy and put forward some programs that would at least create the perception of a modernized National Armed Forces.Were Indonesia to proceed with a new defense white paper in the next year or so, this should be a welcome development for US policymakers and others concerned by China’s actions in the region. The Indonesian public has an increasingly negative view of China according to recent polls, and a new defense white paper could reflect this by referencing China as a potential threat to Indonesian security. Indonesia is a non-claimant state in the South China Sea, but China’s unilateral declaration of the nine-dash line intersects with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone near the Natuna islands. To cement Indonesia’s claim to the Natuna islands, Jokowi even personally visited them aboard an Indonesian military vessel in June 2016. Less related to Indonesia’s national security, Jokowi took considerable efforts in the 2019 election campaign to court religious conservatives, even making Indonesia’s top Muslim cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, his running mate. Advocacy on behalf of repressed Muslim communities elsewhere in the world, such as the Uighurs of China’s Xinjiang province, might become a new pillar of Indonesian foreign policy.
The next few years will prove crucial for not only the power struggle in the broader Asia-Pacific region but also for the future of ASEAN as an effective multilateral arrangement. China has demonstrated how quickly it can move to secure its interests or ambitions in the region, constructing reefs and other land features in the South China Sea protected by anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems in a matter of only a few years. A lack of any formal attention to this issue in the defense strategies of ASEAN members continues this trend of ceding the initiative to China. Hopefully, defense planners from Malaysia and some of its neighbors can capture this issue and propose measures to address this effectively.