Indonesia’s delicate dance between China and the United States – The Diplomat
In late June, Jakarta and Washington began construction of a $ 3.5 million maritime training center in Batam, near Singapore and the southern entrance to the Strait of Malacca. The development is strategically important because of the planned center’s proximity to trade routes connecting the South China Sea and the Straits. The move is also the latest sign that the United States is stepping up its presence in Indonesia to counter China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia.
At the training center’s inauguration ceremony on June 27, US Ambassador Sung Kim said the initiative was part of Washington’s continued efforts to partner with Indonesia in the fight against transnational crime, which includes the provision of equipment, support, training and technical assistance to the Indonesian Maritime Safety Agency (Bakamla).
“As a friend and partner of Indonesia, the United States remains committed to supporting Indonesia’s leading role in promoting regional peace and security by addressing national and transnational crimes.” , did he declare.
The center builds on the growing US security engagement with Indonesia. According to the US State Department, Indonesia received $ 39 million in US aid last year for military and security assistance, training and education. Previously, Indonesia had also received $ 5 million in aid to strengthen its defense resource capabilities, including enhanced maritime security, between 2016 and 2020. Indonesian Armed Forces and US Pacific Army lead also regular Garuda Shield military exercises, focused on training in peace support capacity and stability operations.
The Maritime Training Center, located at the strategic meeting point of the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca, can be seen as a US effort to reaffirm Washington’s status as Indonesia’s premier defense partner and contain China’s influence in Southeast Asia.
Since Joe Biden took office in January, his policy towards China has changed in some ways. “I’m not going to do it like Trump did,” he said. “We will focus on the international rules of the road. We don’t need to have a conflict, but there is going to be extreme competition. At the same time, policies remain in many ways unchanged from the Trump era.
The continued competition between the United States and China has put Indonesia in a difficult position. But Indonesia enjoys a vital strategic position in the region, and could benefit from it as the two superpowers seek to strengthen their presence in Southeast Asia.
So far, Indonesia has been relatively successful in maintaining bilateral relations with the two world powers and upholding its long-standing principle of a “free and active” foreign policy. Relationships are also complementary. According to Collin Koh, researcher at the Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, Indonesia’s relations with China are essentially economic, while they “are closer to the United States in terms of defense and security” .
However, China is also trying to improve defense relations with Indonesia, including helping with the lifting of the KRI Nanggala submarine that sank off Bali in May. In mid-2020, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto met with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe to discuss cooperation in handling COVID-19, including manufacture of Chinese vaccine Sinovac, hospital ventilators and sterilization and disinfection robots for sanitary isolation rooms, in addition to other health products.
While China’s defense engagement with Indonesia still lags the United States, it excels in investment and trade. China is Indonesia’s second-largest investor after Singapore, with an investment value of $ 4.8 billion. Even last year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese investments increased 9%. China was also Indonesia’s largest trading partner in 2020 with a trade value of $ 71.4 billion, while trade with the United States was just $ 27.2 billion.
As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pointed out at the inaugural meeting of the High-Level Sino-Indonesian Dialogue Mechanism in Guiyang in June, “China has been Indonesia’s biggest trading partner for 10 consecutive years and remains Indonesia’s second largest source of investment. “
As US-China tensions continue to rise, President Joko Widodo must be able to proactively engage with both hegemons. While economic cooperation between China and Indonesia remains strong, surveys by the Pew Research report found that 48% of the public believe that Chinese investments will only have a negative impact on society, especially on employment levels. Recent xenophobic sentiment has grown stronger as China’s economic activities in the country have grown, especially with the influx of Chinese workers into the country.
Given the strategic position it enjoys in the era of US-Chinese competition, Indonesia must maximize the existing potential of its relationship with the two superpowers in order to safeguard its long-term prosperity and sovereignty. Indonesia should improve its military relations with China and its investments with the United States. Only by creating a better balance in its relations with the two superpowers will Indonesia be able to make “free and active” the reality of its foreign policy, rather than just the slogan.