Insight: Is Indonesia tilting toward China?

Rizal Sukma

Published in Jakarta Post

Of late, there have been suggestions that Indonesia under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is tilting toward China. Some have even suggested that the growing relationship between Indonesia and China constitutes a drastic departure from Indonesia’s long-standing position of maintaining equal relationships with all major powers.

This new reading of Indonesia-China relations is generally based on three factors. First and foremost, President Jokowi’s efforts to attract Chinese investments to Indonesia, often cited as evidence that Indonesia is indeed gravitating toward China.

Second, the accusation grew stronger when Indonesia supported and eventually joined the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Third, the decision to favor China over Japan for the high-speed train project connecting Jakarta and Bandung is seen by some as a final confirmation of the trend.

This is a completely false reading of President Jokowi’s foreign policy. Indeed, critics often read his decisions and views regarding China in a simplistic way. President Jokowi, like all previous presidents, fully understands the sanctity of the principle of bebas-aktif (free and active) as the basic tenet of Indonesia’s foreign policy.

At an operational level, the manifestation of the bebas-aktif principle in Jokowi’s foreign policy, and policy toward China in particular, seems to reflect two organizing principles: Economic/diplomatic “rebalancing” and “hedging” based on realistic calculations of national interests. Indonesia needs to integrate China, the world’s second largest economy, into the interface of Indonesia’s national and regional strategic interests.

President Jokowi’s attempt to woo foreign investors is not unique to China alone. His messages to Indonesia’s partners and business community around the world have been consistent: This is the time to invest in Indonesia. This is the message to Japan, Singapore, South Korea, the US, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, the European Union, Iran and so on. This is driven by clear national interest, namely the need for foreign direct investment to boost Indonesia’s development, especially in infrastructure.

Regarding China, there is an additional dimension to the whole undertaking. Indonesia needs to convince China to participate more in its development so that it can match other partners’ contributions. In terms of investment, for example, there is still a huge gap between pledges and realized investment. According to Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM) head Franky Sibarani, the implementation rate for China’s investment pledges stands at only 7 to 10 percent, far below Japanese and South Korean rates, both of which exceed 70 percent.

In fact, only recently did China make it onto the list of Indonesia’s top 10 investors. China’s investment in Indonesia remains far behind that of other Indonesian partners. At the same time, Indonesia is not yet the main destination for Chinese investment. China’s investment in Indonesia is still far behind its investment in other East Asian countries.

If Indonesia and China are serious about their comprehensive strategic partnership, this “double gap” needs to be corrected. Therefore, Jokowi’s overture to China should be seen as an attempt to encourage it to tilt more toward Indonesia; hence an economic rebalancing.

The accusation that Indonesia is becoming increasingly “pro-China” is unfounded for two more reasons. First, Indonesia’s stance on the South China Sea dispute has been clear and consistent, always asking China to clarify the nine-dash line (NDL). In fact, the Indonesian government has made it clear that the NDL has no legal basis in international law.

Also, Indonesia, along with fellow ASEAN countries, has expressed the view that the construction of artificial islands by China in the South China Sea is problematic. At the same time, Indonesia continues to work with China and ASEAN partners to speed up work on the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. This position is clearly in line with Indonesia’s own strategic interests.

Second, while security and defense cooperation with China is improving, Indonesia is doing the same with other strategic partners, especially the US and Japan. In fact, Indonesia’s political and security ties with the US and Japan are deeper than its ties with China.

President Jokowi’s visits to Tokyo in March and to the US in October have strengthened those ties even further. Here, as a manifestation of diplomatic “rebalancing”, political and security cooperation between Indonesia and China needs to be further enhanced as well. All these developments reflect Indonesia’s strategy of diplomatic “hedging” in the face of strategic uncertainty in the region.

In short, those who think that Indonesia is moving toward China should not underestimate Indonesia’s commitment to preserving its own strategic autonomy. As the region is increasingly fraught with uncertainty due to strategic transformations taking place in East Asia, it would be foolish for Indonesia to become a pawn in the game of great powers’ rivalries and quests for influence.
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The writer is executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta.

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