Sino-Indonesian relations may undergo a significant shift for the worse as continued provocations coupled with Beijing’s deteriorating public image during COVID-19 affect regional calculations.
– Indonesia is moving forward with purchases of US-made MV-22 Block C Osprey
– Joint projects and high-level diplomacy with Beijing hang in the balance
– Frustration over COVID-19 could see next ASEAN forum invoke stronger anti-China rhetoric
From sure-footing to tightrope
Recent incursions into Indonesian waters by China’s commercial fishing fleets and coast guard have prompted a rethink of Indonesia’s policy of strategic balancing. In what has largely been seen as a strategic blunder, Beijing inexplicably sought to recommence its incursions into Indonesia’s internationally recognised waters even as moderate voices were souring towards Beijing in the wake of COVID-19.
Indonesia’s posture regarding maritime disputes has been especially reserved, yet the resumption of illegal fishing around the Natuna islands by China has prompted a concerted backlash against China throughout Indonesia. Infuriated citizens argued the move has demonstrated hypocrisy in Beijing’s purported stance as a reliable partner to Indonesia, especially as Jakarta continues to struggle with the challenges posed by the pandemic.
Yet after a series of high-level statements advocating the primacy of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and expressing support for other Southeast Asian claimants to the South China Sea (SCS), Indonesia appeared ready to deescalate tensions and move on. That chapter, however, now appears to be only the beginning, as reports indicate the US played its own hand, pressuring Jakarta into a now almost complete purchase of eight MV-22 Block C Osprey aircraft worth $2 billion.
Though Indonesian President Jokowi and his cabinet still await Beijing’s reply, an aggressive Chinese response seems all the more likely given Beijing’s precedent for uncompromising actions elsewhere in the region and the added significance it is likely to attach to Indonesia’s acquisition of US military hardware.
In that event, Indonesia’s cooperation with China on projects such as the Jakarta-Bandung-Surabaya high-speed rail line and a rescheduling of Jokowi’s planned state visit to Beijing (delayed due to the pandemic), could hang in the balance. Moreover, with Indonesia’s rising anti-China sentiment fuelling strong and influential currents of public discontent at home, and an antagonistic Vietnam chairing ASEAN, it seems Indonesia ought to expect an increasingly difficult relationship with Beijing going forward.
Tipping the scales
The part that the US played was, in fact, two-fold. In early 2020, Jokowi’s administration had been intending to follow through on plans with Russia to purchase 11 Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets worth $1.1 billion while simultaneously holding talks with China to purchase several naval patrol vessels worth $200 million. During discussions in March, however, US officials made it clear Indonesia could face sanctions for dealing with Russia and punitive trade measures for dealing with China, prompting Jokowi to withdraw and focus instead on the difficult road ahead in maintaining his nation’s economic growth. From that point on, even under the threat of US sanctions, Jokowi struck a conciliatory tone.
With a (perhaps Natuna Island-sized) setback for Beijing having already been inflicted, albeit unintentionally, the reasoning behind Indonesia’s de-escalatory statements during subsequent public forums becomes a little clearer.
In a letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres on May 26, Indonesia expressed support for the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that dismissed China’s historic claim over features inside its “nine-dash line”, but Jakarta refrained from impugning China directly. A month later, in much the same manner as past communiqués, Indonesia supported ASEAN’s statement reaffirming that “the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for determining maritime entitlements.” During the summit, Jokowi was at least conspicuous in calling on ASEAN nations to safeguard ASEAN unity and centrality, saying, “ASEAN must be the guardian of our own region, not the projection of power by bigger nations.”
As Mark Valencia noted, alone these statements offered little in the way of seismic shifts in the dispute that one might have expected during a moment of such inflamed circumstances. It comes as quite a shock, then, that Indonesia, rather than pursuing diplomacy, has walked completely in the other direction to acquire US hardware worth $700 million more than both its previous deals with China and Russia combined. While there is no definitive answer as to why exactly Indonesia picked this particular deal, it seems apparent that if Washington can force Jakarta’s hand once, it is likely to do so again.
Though there is now little left to gain from playing coy, Indonesia’s defence establishment, as recently as July, maintained they were unaware of the plan. However, that would be perhaps an even greater shock, given that the relevant US security cooperation agency (DSCA) can only announce a foreign military sale after a letter of request is sent by a potential buyer.
With the role of the US now in full view, the sum total of Indonesia’s statements these past months appears intended to shirk the impression it is buddying up with Washington. While Indonesia has consistently remained committed to the “rules-based international system” for the sake of its relationship with Beijing, Jakarta no doubt hopes to avoid signaling that its purchase of US hardware is an intentional, independent shift to an antagonistic strategic posture.
In a public webinar, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi was at pains to emphasise that, “global political rivalry …[is] not conducive at a time when global solidarity and collaboration are imperative.” Jokowi, too, showed Indonesia’s continuing support for walking the middle road when he called on leaders of Non-Aligned Movement member countries to “strengthen political solidarity amid the global fight against COVID-19.”
Success in maintaining the status quo with this posture could pay off immensely. For starters, reasserting Jakarta as a stable, dependable business hub could be beneficial in attracting foreign investment just as businesses look to adjust their global supply chains away from hazards of the US-China trade war. Aspirations for Jakarta to play regional conciliator could also regain policy favour — driving forward a joint China-Japan Jakarta-Bandung-Surabaya high-speed rail project would mark a key milestone in Indonesia’s steady emergence into global politics.
Beijing is unlikely to back down over its nine-dash line claims, which include the Natunas. That maritime boundary dispute could hamper cooperation elsewhere and is indicative of the increasingly impossible balancing act Indonesia is being asked to perform. Moreover, with anti-China sentiment becoming a more potent force domestically, Jokowi may need to avoid a parallel risk of being seen as the ‘Indonesian Duterte’ (the Philippines president has been accused of appeasing to China), lest public sentiment turn and undermine his recent electoral success.
All things considered, whether Jokowi’s state visit is postponed indefinitely, Jakarta is requested to push for a weaker line in the next ASEAN communiqué, or the threat of economic decoupling or realised, Indonesia should expect that China’s next pronouncements will be uniquely encompassing of Beijing’s strategic view. Although these past few months have provided dramatic indications as to the heretofore unspoken conditions of Sino-Indonesian relations, events in the latter half of the year ought to confirm beyond doubt what is at stake. Jokowi has proved competent in keeping Indonesia out of many unsought contests, but confirmation of whether Indonesia can continue its balancing act will be crucial to determining the trajectory of Indonesia’s foreign policy at a time when so many regional players seem to want to tip the scales.
Jonathan is the East and Southeast Asia team’s lead analyst for stories emanating from China and Southeast Asia.