MANIS: the way to sweeten regional cooperation
16 Aug 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Paradoxiko*Beck*

After a succession of sour patches in bilateral ties between Jakarta and Canberra, there’s now a sweet breeze in the air in the Australia–Indonesia relationship. But what can be done to help it survive the next squall which could blow things off course? One way to help would be by bringing in close and trusted neighbours to help stabilise the mix.

Manis is the Indonesian word for ‘sweet’. It also could symbolise a grouping of maritime partners on the southern edge of Southeast Asia: Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Singapore. A MANIS regional maritime cooperation forum (PDF), could address a vast range of concerns for the member countries.

A MANIS Regional Maritime Cooperation Forum could be organised in a number of ways, depending on the consensus of the participating nations. With a view to the sensitivities of Indonesia and others, it would be best to start slowly. Over time, the forum could generate goodwill and political momentum to grow. Ideally the political leadership of participating states would see the utility of gradually building up the forum and associated networks of contacts and issues covered, broadening and deepening the range of issues shared and addressed collaboratively.

Starting with a second track or one-and-a-half track approach would probably be easier, rather than launching into a fully-fledged governmental initiative. One way to do so would be to establish working groups to examine a range of non-traditional security concerns.

Topics on which regional representatives could consult, share experiences and cooperate are the security implications of region-wide challenges including climate change, illegal fisheries, natural resources management, illegal immigration, terrorism, smuggling and transnational crime, including trafficking in drugs, endangered wildlife and weapons. The forum could also focus on improving search and rescue and natural disaster coordination.

That approach would involve collaborative government, university and think tank teams from the various participating countries meeting to form working groups to discuss a range of possibilities including police, immigration, border security, legal, judicial, environmental, intelligence, and financial matters. Such encounters could examine shared issues of concern and other information exchanges, including on operating procedures. They also could consider possible collaborative activities to facilitate closer engagement and cross-pollination of personnel, ideas and sharing of experiences.

Ultimately, this Forum could take regional cooperation beyond the levels achieved through the Bali Process and help to better address the implications of a new security agenda centred on environmentally vulnerable communities and climate change.

Eventually, if successful and mutually agreed to, military and other security concerns could feature under this framework as well. For instance, maritime security measures could be workshopped and collaborative activities developed. Efforts could be made to help regional coast-watching aerial surveillance patrols to be coordinated, more information exchanged and additional police and other liaison and exchange positions established.

Those arrangements would then enable the participating nations to consider coordinated and shared activities. Such activities could gradually build up, starting with conferences and workshops, to planning meetings, demonstrations and, eventually, actual collaborative exercises and operational activities. In time, and with the goodwill and agreement of the participants, such activities could utilise a range of civil and military resources to plan and conduct a range of related activities together.

Critics may argue there are too many regional forums already. But existing forums have great difficulty reaching consensus. A smaller grouping like MANIS would find it easier. Potentially, it could be empowered to bolster regional stability in and around Indonesia and the areas governed by the affected neighbouring states in a way that circumvents the existing consensus-driven constraints. Enhancing cooperation and collaboration this way, with timely and consultative decision-making by participating nations, could significantly bolster stability and prosperity in areas of mutual concern.

A MANIS Regional Forum wouldn’t make redundant the region’s other bilateral and multilateral forums and arrangements. Indeed, foreign ministries are already stretched thin with responsibilities relating to ASEAN, let alone other forums. With a maritime focus and additional resources, perhaps the respective ministries of defence or border protection may be better placed to take the lead in engaging with the MANIS forum.

With a growing range of maritime and non-traditional security challenges, there’s a compelling argument to be made for the countries of Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Singapore to join hands and work together in a new way. This could be something far more than a straightforward multilateral forum. With unprecedented and growing challenges, there is an opportunity for the MANIS countries to work together across a wide range of domains to bolster shared regional stability. The way ahead involves respectful, patient, collegial and determined collaborative engagement to sweeten regional ties.