WEB EXCLUSIVES | COMMENTARIES
Rearranging the region
Is regional cooperation forum Manis the way ahead?
22 August 2017
By: Duncan Graham
Photo: Erlinawati Graham

Professor John Blaxland sees the world differently. Particularly Southeast Asia, which he sets as the centerpoint rather than an afterthought

To help others cope with this unsettling cartography he offers a sweetener – a grouping of nations to better suit new realities than old regimes.

The globe as drawn by seafarers from afar has Indonesia straddling the Equator. The islands of the archipelago look upwards and see the looming might of China.

Below is the Great South Land, adjacent and inviting. This view is the Australian nightmare, the dread that their empty land will have famished millions tumbling down to smother a European outpost.

Blaxland’s chart squashes this fear of population shift through gravity by flattening the projection so the focus is Darwin, population around 200,000 with satellite suburbs.

The lonely little city atop Australia (the capital Canberra is almost 500 kilometers further away than Jakarta) has been hosting 2,500 US troops on six-month rotations for the past five years. The agreement behind this arrangement remains secret.

At the closest point Indonesia and Australia are just 200 kilometers apart, near enough to suggest a neighborhood watch might be in order.

Blaxland, head of the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre at the Australian National University, uses his map to glaze the idea of Manis as a regional maritime cooperation forum. The word means “sweet” in bahasa Indonesia, but here it stands for the cluster of Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Singapore.

He urges against confusion with the 1971 Five Power Defense Arrangements - the same nations plus the UK but minus Indonesia.

“Existing forums, like Asean [aged 50] are struggling to reach consensus,” Blaxland told a seminar on Australia and Indonesia Partnerships in the Indo-Pacific held at the University of Western Australia in July.

“A smaller grouping like Manis would see problem solving more achievable for pressing issues that require regional cooperation. It would be best to start slowly, gradually generate goodwill and political momentum.

“Manis would involve collaboration with governments, universities, think tanks, NGOs and community service organizations. Matters to discuss could include police, immigration, border security, legal, judicial, environmental, intelligence, financial and other working groups.

“The groups could exchange information and share concerns. Closer engagement and sharing of experiences could generate fresh ideas.”

Blaxland is no dreamworld academic. He’s worked in the military and intelligence so knows how to chat to generals, spies and diplomats. He understands the political sensitivities, like not calling his idea an “alliance”.

“With a dose of humility on Australia’s part, and a degree of magnanimous but farsighted Indonesian inclusiveness, the scheme could be made to work,” he said.

Why include a former Dutch colony while the other proposed members have Commonwealth ties? 

“Indonesia’s population and geo-strategic significance astride the maritime arteries connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans make it the key to multilateral regional maritime cooperation.” In brief, Indonesia is now too important to ignore.

Forums thrive in the region. Many look good, bloom early then wither in breezes of bland.  Blaxland’s word is “cumbersome”.

One of the most unwieldy in title and management is the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime. Its 45 members include Jordan and Iran, who have more pressing issues almost 10,000 kilometers north-west.

Manis has been driving around awhile. That it’s still finding parking space on agendas suggests the tank is full.  Blaxland keeps steering: “This was always something that would take time to get policy traction - and one that would require Indonesian buy-in.”

The first model rolled out at a 2013 meeting of Aus-CSCAP. The acronym is unpronounceable but Blaxland reckons the non-government Australian Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific is a useful informal forum for floating ideas about “political and security issues and challenges facing the region”.

The 2014 election all-change in Jakarta gave Manis a welcome nudge. New President Joko Widodo, a noted landlubber, surprised many by bringing maritime issues ashore for a policy refit.

Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi explained this was to “protect Indonesia’s sovereignty … by responding firmly to any intrusions into Indonesian territory”.

Implementation involved much theatre as captured foreign fishing boats were blown up once TV crews were in place.  The big bangs lifted the reputation of President Joko and his unconventional Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti, a former can-do entrepreneur.

Less well publicized were clashes where Indonesian patrol boats were trounced by better armed Chinese craft. Rhetoric sinks fast when one navy is underequipped. 

Blaxland’s candy got another coating a fortnight after his Perth speech when diplomats from Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines gathered to worry about militants. The East Asia Wilayah has been fighting for an Islamic state in Marawi.  More than 600 have reportedly been killed in continuing conflict.

The Filipino city is just 700 kilometers above Indonesia’s Manado, where the talks were held.  The envoys said they’d cooperate more closely with intelligence and law enforcement authorities, but didn’t say how.

This concerns the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC). Its July report said that “despite the calls for more regional counter-terrorism cooperation in light of the Marawi siege, there are formidable political and institutional obstacles at work, including Philippine-Malaysian distrust that inhibits information-sharing.” This refers to counter-terrorism responsibilities – police or military?

Blaxland’s group doesn’t include the Philippines. It may have to if defeated fighters retreat to nearby nations as feared by IPAC director Sidney Jones. Then it would be Manisp, which sounds less than sweet.

“So far I've briefed it [Manis] in Jakarta to some policy officials and university groups and received very positive feedback,” Blaxland told Strategic Review. “The Indonesian delegation is keen to take it further and we’re exploring a policy forum to discuss it in the next few weeks.

“I’ve been speaking on this in Malaysia and briefed some New Zealand officials on the idea a couple of weeks ago. I'm quietly optimistic it will get off the ground soon.”

 

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