Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 22:17 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 22:17 | SYDNEY

Indonesia-China: Relaxed and comfortable

28 February 2011 09:45

Beni Sukadis is Program Coordinator at the Indonesian Institute for Strategic and Defense Studies; Henwira Halim is a security analyst based in Jakarta; Greta Nabbs-Keller is writing a PhD at Griffith Asia Institute on the impact of democratisation on Indonesia’s foreign policy.

One might expect that the escalation in regional maritime tensions last year would have rattled Jakarta. Indeed, a recent Centre for Independent Studies report characterised China's rise as Jakarta's 'overriding security concern', arguing that Indonesia wanted to cultivate America 'as its most important strategic partner'. 

It's odd, then, that Jakarta appears increasingly comfortable about China's rise. Indonesia is eagerly pursuing a broad strategic partnership, which includes growing defence and security engagement. This strategy is motivated, in part, by Jakarta's wariness, not of China, but of over-dependence on the US and distrust of neighbours closer to home. 

Beijing's reassurance on Indonesia's territorial borders and willingness to work within the existing regional architecture has served to disarm residual suspicions in Jakarta, and given Indonesia confidence that South China Sea tensions can be managed within the ASEAN framework. Chinese acknowledgment of Indonesian sovereignty over the South China Sea-located Natuna Islands and a rumoured proposal by Beijing for a fishery dispute settlement mechanism are highly astute moves which have gone a long way to building trust in Jakarta.

Indonesia's Armed Forces (TNI), traditionally the institutional foreign policy actor with the strongest aversion to closer relations with China, can now see the strategic benefits inherent in China's growth and military modernisation. Feeling betrayed by earlier US military embargoes, Indonesia is turning to Beijing for defence technology transfers and competitively-priced equipment, minus the political baggage.

Ready access to Chinese military technology helps Jakarta catch up with neighbours Malaysia and Singapore, whose capability edge rankles. From principal threat to strategic partner, TNI now appreciates how China can help build its defence capabilities to contend with more 'troublesome' neighbours.

At Indonesia's Foreign Affairs Ministry there is also growing optimism. Indonesia is increasingly confident of its regional diplomatic influence and ability to moderate major power tensions through ASEAN's multi-layered regional architecture, which is designed to balance power and diffuse conflict. Beijing's acceptance of the centrality and significance of ASEAN, in contrast to Washington's belated efforts, has helped Indonesia to see China as a 'natural partner' in the region.

Although an ongoing US role in the region is viewed by Indonesia as both welcome and legitimate, it appears that China's actions last year have not unduly concerned Jakarta. Providing China does not over-exert its influence or renege on recognition of Indonesia’s territorial interests, Indonesia seems less ambiguous and more comfortable about the inevitability of China's rise.

Photo by Flickr user Shreyans Bhansali.