Friday 26 Feb 2021 | 17:26 | SYDNEY
Friday 26 Feb 2021 | 17:26 | SYDNEY

US realists lose their way in SE Asia

18 October 2010 17:42

Greta Nabbs-Keller is writing a PhD at Griffith Asia Institute on the impact of democratisation on Indonesia's foreign policy.

Judging by the recent work of some US realists, you would think Southeast Asia has no previous experience in dealing with a powerful China, and that China's Southeast Asia 'charm offensive' over the last decade or so has completely erased all residual suspicions.

Two recent examples spring to mind, including an August lecture by US realist scholar John Mearsheimer at the University of Sydney, who speculated that China, in an attempt to protect its access to strategic waterways connecting the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, would seek to 'maintain a significant military presence in the waters of northern coast of Australia and maybe even in Indonesian territory'.

In another example, journalist Christian Caryl, in a provocatively titled Foreign Policy piece, 'Panda Hugger Hangover', asserted that China's submission of a map to the UN last year, in which Beijing claimed almost the entire South China Sea, was 'the real wake-up call for Southeast Asians'. It cited the US lifting of its ban on engagement with Indonesia's Army Special Forces unit (Kopassus) as an example of the sudden onset of balancing behaviour – 'now the balancing begins', Caryl proclaimed.

It seems highly problematic to believe that Indonesia, an avowedly non-aligned state, acutely sensitive about its sovereignty and with an historical aversion to foreign military bases, would countenance Chinese military bases on its territory. And this doesn't even touch on the deep and divisive legacy of Beijing's alleged role in Indonesia's 1965 abortive coup, the historical discrimination and suspicion of ethnic Chinese, and the fact that Indonesia was concerned about Chinese actions in the South China Sea in the 1990s.

Regarding the apparent sudden onset of balancing behaviour, certainly the US is courting ASEAN states with attractive offers, but in Jakarta's case at least, the door was always open to enhanced US defence engagement. Rather than a result of any sudden volte-face by Jakarta motivated by fear of China, it's the US which is back, cheque-book in hand and human rights concerns pushed aside.

But what does it really matter if a couple of offensive realists have demonstrated an apparent lack of area studies expertise' Well, it probably matters in direct proportion to their policy influence in Washington. To view Southeast Asian actions merely as a function of great power politics orchestrated by China and the US is erroneous and reductionist. Australia has an important role to play here in moderating this kind of discourse, as it risks skewing perceptions and ultimately policy implementation in Washington.