Peace and security in the Asia Pacific in the post-Obama era: The view from ASEAN and Indonesia

Indonesian Ambassador to the UK, Dr. Rizal Sukma, visits York to give speech and answer questions on peace and security in South East Asia

On Tuesday 14th November, the Indonesian ambassador to the United Kingdom, Dr Rizal Sukma, visited and partook in a seminar on the topic of ‘Peace and security in the Asia Pacific in the post-Obama era’, with Dr. Claire Smith from the Department of Politics chairing the seminar. The event run by the Department of Politics in collaboration with the Indonesian Society featured a traditional Indonesian dance and food, creating a welcoming a comfortable atmosphere.

Foreign ministers from participating countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers Meeting during its closing ceremony at the Philippine International Convention Center in Pasay City on August 8, 2017.

As the seminar moved onto the discussion of Peace and Security in the Asia Pacific, Dr Sukma extensively articulated the current political climate within the Asian Pacific and specifically South East Asia. Dr Sukma spoke of the potential unrest that could follow the current conflicts in the Asian Pacific. Particularly with President Duarte’s crackdown on Islamic fundamentalists  in the Philippines, and the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. This is not to be understated as peace and security are heavily threatened as the latter conflict has sparked a refugee crisis, in which nearly 600,000 Rohingya muslims have been forcibly displaced.

As the floor opened up for questions, many were focused around the dispute in the South China Sea and especially Western interference with regional diplomacy. Dr Sukma gave his reply in the context of both an academic and ambassador, which did not particularly change as he gave a message of need for stability over the “rocks” that are being aggressively contended between Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and China.

Dr. Rizal Sukma, pictured right with International Maritime Organisation Secretary General Kitack Lim.

However, the question I pressed the Ambassador were those of an environmental nature and how the palm oil industry in Indonesia is causing havoc in both Indonesia’s ecosystem and the general environment across South East Asia. Furthermore in 2015 where the hazing — a term used to describe when palm trees are burnt to release the palm oil causing smog — reached a crisis point as thick smog reached neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia with dramatic effect having severe health hazards and losses in the economy, with analysts estimating a loss of nearly $1.2bn in 2013, in Singapore alone.

Palm oil is thus a fundamental, divisive issue across the region and has the potential to undermine peace in the subcontinent as relations become inflamed. When questioned however, Dr Sukma was quick to respond that since 2015 Indonesia has enforced a ban on further clearing for palm oil sites and established a system that measures different areas of the country for hazing to ensure that companies do not exceed a limit on the amount of pollution they are producing and threatening legal action if they do breach the limit.

Sukma furthered that he personally found, in light of these regulations and restrictions, that the recent “EU restrictions on palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia are frustrating, to say the least as we are trying hard to combat this problem.” EU restrictions on the palm oil trade are additionally frustrating many Indonesian palm oil plantation owners who feel angry that the potential restrictions would jeopardise their livelihoods as the EU accounts for 17% of palm oil exports from Indonesia, with President Widodo arguing it could leave many Indonesians destitute.

Although it is clear that sanctions, a typical Western non-intervening intervention, that threaten to cause depravity is a solution that is unthoughtful, as although there must be a curbing of palm oil use it should not be the EU who enforces this. I believe it should come from the individual, by seeking an alternative product that either does not contain palm oil or has a renewable source. This, even I can admit is extremely tough as it appears to be in everything, from pizza to shampoo, but can make a monumental difference by forcing companies and local farmers to seek greener alternatives.

Moreover, greener alternatives to substances such as palm oil cannot come sooner with the increasing climate that the palm oil trade has ultimately contributed to as rising climate and sea temperatures are having a phenomenal effect on Southeast Asian tourism, with the bleaching of coral within the Greater Coral Triangle Region that includes Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. This, as many of you will have seen from the recent airing of Blue Planet II, has disastrous effects for not only fish and mammals that depend on thriving coral, but people in terms of a livelihood as the World Wildlife Federation estimates the coral reef fisheries brings in $2.4bn annually to South East Asia.

However, recent efforts by NGOs such as the North Bali Reef Conservation, co-founded by Zach Boakes a Bournemouth University, that is working “to restore and extend coral reef ecosystems.” This has led to phenomenal growth of coral aggregations, which show a positive sign moving forward into the future, though the fragility of reefs is not to be understated.

Growth of coral aggregations in North Bali Sea in Tianyar

The delicate nature of the greater coral thus epitomises the surrounding political, social and economic spheres that hold balance over the region. This was emphasised by Dr Sukma delivering the how all these factors could come to ahead considering the impatient and reckless nature that President Trump appears to show through his foreign diplomacy, though his offer to mediate the claims offers a potential stabilising factor in the region. Sukma’s message of the environmental, political, social and economic forces that encompass the Asian pacific, foreshadows a conceivably hostile environment, particularly if they simultaneously come to ahead within the next decade, which could cause catastrophic effects for the subcontinent.

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