Over Coffee #15: Regional security developments and Indonesia’s G20 updates

In this recap, I cover recent developments of regional security in the Indo-Pacific, which includes the Solomon Islands and China bilateral security cooperation agreement and the possible expansion of the Trilateral Cooperative Agreement (TCA) between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Then, it’s on to Indonesia’s ongoing quest to build its new capital city and its precarious position as the president of the G20.

Indo-Pacific and regional security

Solomon Islands and China have signed a controversial security cooperation agreement. The bilateral agreement would allow China, “according to its own needs and with the consent of the Solomon Islands” to make ships visits and stopovers. It would also allow the “forces of China”, which includes the police and military personnel, to be deployed upon request of the Solomon Islands to “maintain social order”. According to the Chinese Embassy in the Solomon Islands, the agreement also covers cooperation in natural disaster response, humanitarian assistance, development assistance, and maintenance of social order. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, touted the benefits of the agreement for “social stability and the lasting security of Solomon Islands”.

Though there are speculations that the agreement would allow the Chinese to host a military base in the Solomon Islands, it does not seem the agreement would allow for the creation of an offshore base. The Solomon Islands government is “conscious of the security ramification of hosting a military base, and it will not be careless to allow such initiative to take place under its watch.

The agreement shows China’s determination to gain a foothold in the Pacific Islands, at the possible detriment of regional stability. These concerns are captured in the remarks of the President of Micronesia, who fears the Pacific Islands will be “at the epicenter of a future confrontation between these major powers [United States and China].”

The Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands found these worries “insulting” as if they implied the country was “unfit to manage [their] sovereign affairs.”

In maritime security, the Sulu-Celebes Sea Trilateral Cooperative Agreement (TCA) is expected to be expanded. The cooperative agreement, implemented in 2017, would be expanded “beyond its current defence sphere” by involving maritime law enforcement agencies and “other relevant agencies” on top of the respective members’ navies. Cooperation is also expected to be cemented with the possible appointment of a “permanent trilateral maritime officer” and better intelligence-sharing efforts.

In addition, a proposal has been floated to consider the inclusion of Brunei as a fourth member. This would effectively turn the trilateral cooperative agreement into a quadrilateral agreement. Oh wait, no, they decided it would be called a “Quartet” to avoid a copyright strike.

What’s going on in Indonesia?

In early March, Joko Widodo appointed the chief and deputy chief of the new capital city (Kepala Otorita Ibu Kota Negara). Unlike other regional heads, which are democratically elected in regional elections, the chiefs of the new capital city were directly appointed by the President, after consultation with the House of Representatives. As Rapha and Amedi note in a New Mandala commentary, this decision demonstrates, at best, democratic regression occurring in Indonesia, and at worst, a blatant disregard for the Constitution which mandates direct election of regional leaders.

But will the new capital city project, which is estimated to cost over USD 32 billion dollars, see the light of day? Foreign investors have started to show doubt. Softbank, one of the largest investors of the project, withdrew its projected USD 40 billion investment in mid-March. The announcement forced the government to seek out other venues of investment. Soon after Softbank’s withdrawal, Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Pandjaitan, spoke with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to follow up on Saudi Arabia’s promises of investment.

But don’t worry. There’s a solution for the government’s monetary woes: crowdfunding. Nope, you read that right. Crowdfunding. At least, that would be one of the many ways the government expects to gather money for its vanity project.

All-around multi-talented actress, Maudy Ayunda, has been appointed as Indonesia’s official spokesperson for its G20 presidency. The decision was made on the basis of her widespread appeal among the younger generation, as confirmed by Indonesia’s Minister for Information and Communication, Johnny G. Plate.

While Ayunda does boast a stellar host of talents and achievements which makes her qualified for the position, the decision to appoint her as spokesperson raises questions of the government’s goals for the G20 presidency. One would expect the Foreign Ministry to have a suitable diplomat with years of diplomatic experience under their belt to fill in this important role. It would seem the administration is more bent on showcasing theatrics rather than Indonesia’s diplomatic finesse.

Speaking of the G20, Indonesia remains in a bind on whether Putin should be given a seat at the G20. The United States has expressed intent to expel Russia, and other US allies generally believe Russia does not deserve a seat and have threatened to boycott the forum. China, however, insists Russia is an “important member” of the forum. Indonesia insists that the G20 should be limited to discussions of economic affairs, health resilience, and renewable energy, without touching any thorny high-politics issues. Indonesia’s ambiguity on the Russian position is likely due to its economic interests, as a recent plan to purchase Russian crude oil has been greenlighted.

That’s all for this week, and come back again next week for more coverage on issues in the Indo-Pacific!

Header image: China hands over Sinovac vaccines to the Solomon Islands, Embassy of China in the Solomon Islands

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