Indonesian President Joko Widodo on board a naval ship in the waters of the Natuna Islands, Indonesia, June 2016 
Antara Foto Agency / Reuters

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country and its seventh-largest economy. Yet the Southeast Asian country has historically played an undersized role in global affairs. Its traditional policy of neutrality in international relations has made it a bit player in Asia and rendered it mostly invisible in international forums such as the United Nations. But China’s ascent, and its escalating incursions into waters that Indonesia claims, has inflamed anti-China sentiment in the archipelago and called into question the wisdom of nonalignment. Now, after decades of punching below its weight, Jakarta may be about to assert itself on the international stage.

In recent years, Indonesian leaders have sought to chart a middle path toward China, at once pandering to popular distrust of China while seeking Chinese investment. But that balancing act has done little to dissuade Beijing from harassing Indonesia as it does its other Southeast Asian and Pacific neighbors. President Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, largely eschews opportunities to speak on the international stage. His ambiguous messaging on China is becoming increasingly unsustainable as the regional security landscape changes.

Other regional powers have already begun to mobilize as a counterweight to Beijing. Australia, India, and Japan—all large democracies—have tightened their cooperation with the United States in the Indo-Pacific under the rubric of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad. The Quad aims to check China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea and, more broadly, to prevent China from attaining a hegemonic position in the region. To date, Indonesia has remained a bystander in this competition, strengthening China’s position. To begin to counter Chinese encroachment on its borders—and act its size—Indonesia should consider cooperating more closely with the Quad.

THE RISING HEGEMON

Indonesia’s traditional policy of nonalignment was initially a form of assertiveness on the international stage. The post-independence years under President Sukarno saw the country take a leading role in the nonaligned movement, hosting the Asia-Africa conference in 1955 that sought to create an alternative bloc to those aligned with the Soviet Union and with the United States. That internationalist posture changed in 1965; a CIA-supported coup overthrew Sukarno and brought the country within the anti-Soviet, U.S. bloc. The coup unleashed waves of violence against leftists and ethnic Chinese people and led to the severing of relations with China for a quarter century.

The two countries reestablished diplomatic ties in 1990, choosing to put aside past grievances in the interest of economic convenience. Their trade and investment ties have grown immensely since then. China is now Indonesia’s largest trading partner, and Beijing has made several commitments to Indonesia as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s vast infrastructure investment program. But tensions have overshadowed that cooperation, most notably in what Indonesia calls the Natuna Sea, at the southern end of the South China Sea. China’s aggressive maritime claims overlap with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone in those waters, causing friction and confrontation. China has repeatedly intruded into waters Indonesia claims, bullying fishermen and prompting outrage in Jakarta.

Recent events have also damaged China’s reputation in Indonesia. The mistreatment of Indonesian migrant workers on Chinese boats has won widespread attention since May. At least six Indonesian sailors have died while working in a Chinese fishing fleet this year; the Chinese fleet also stranded hundreds of Indonesian sailors in Senegal, leaving them to be repatriated by the Indonesian government. So far, no Chinese individuals or companies have been held responsible for these actions, fueling the impression that Chinese authorities are indifferent to or even disdainful of Indonesians. Many Indonesians also blame Beijing for the COVID-19 pandemic, which originated in China but has hit Indonesia harder than any other country in East or Southeast Asia. Approval of China among Indonesians had already sunk from 66 percent in 2014 to just 36 percent last year; that figure will likely be even lower now.

But while China grows increasingly unpopular in Indonesia, Indonesian leaders are reluctant to prick the giant. Until recently, authorities haven’t been proactive in defending maritime rights in the Natuna Sea, expanding the Indonesian military presence there only after Chinese incursions became too frequent and brazen to ignore. Similarly, Indonesia raised the cases of migrant deaths with Beijing only after significant domestic pressure. Other times, Jakarta takes its cues from Beijing. In October, Indonesia deported three Uighur Muslim asylum seekers to China and has refused to take a position on the Uighur human rights crisis, despite the mounting clamor of Indonesian activists and Indonesia’s status as the largest Muslim-majority country in the world.

An Indonesian naval vessel encounters a Chinese coast guard ship north of the Natuna islands, Indonesia, January 2020  
Antara Foto Agency / M. Risyal Hidayat / Reuters

At the regional level, China’s growing strength has stymied the work of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the regional bloc of countries that observers once hoped would grow into an integrated entity akin to the European Union. Some ASEAN members, most notably Cambodia and Laos, often act on behalf of Beijing—for instance by preventing the association from addressing China’s incursions into member states’ territorial waters in the South China Sea. Both countries have become such naked proxies for China that the prominent Singaporean former diplomat Bilahari Kausikan recently suggested at a public event that the ten-member body might feel compelled “to cut loose the two to save the eight.” For their part, Indonesian officials have done little to push back on Chinese influence over ASEAN, even though Indonesia hosts the bloc’s organizational headquarters in Jakarta.

There are signs, however, that the recent Natuna Sea incidents are prompting Indonesia to consider adopting a tougher stance toward China. When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Indonesia in late October, he reiterated U.S. support for Indonesia’s claims in the Natuna Sea and urged the country to increase military cooperation with the United States and to take a stronger stand on China’s treatment of the Muslim-minority Uighurs. Australia and Indonesia have also been strengthening security ties since 2016—partly because of fears of the Trump administration’s erratic foreign policy. Jokowi notably described Australia as Indonesia’s “closest friend” in a speech in early 2020, when Indonesia was grappling with the problem of Chinese incursion into the Natuna Sea.

Indonesia could, and should, play a stronger role within the region, especially in standing up to countries that toe Beijing’s line and in working with Quad members on a coordinated regional reaction to China’s buildup of military infrastructure in the South China Sea. This includes accepting the U.S. request for land and refuel rights for its P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and joining future naval exercises such as the one that India, Japan, and the United States staged in November in the Bay of Bengal. Timidity has only hurt Indonesia and emboldened Beijing to send its forces into the Natuna Sea. What use is Indonesia’s self-professed “free and independent” foreign policy if it allows an aggressor, in this case China, to actively encroach on the territorial waters of its neighbors or start politically motivated trade wars to punish neighbors? The “delicate equilibrium,” as Indonesia’s China policy has been called in the past, is not truly an equilibrium anymore.

TURNING TIDES

Indonesia is a large archipelago nation situated on the hinge of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Its strategic location and the fact that it is, at least nominally, a pluralist democracy would make it a natural fit with the other Quad powers. Those countries are also important Indonesian trading partners: Japan, the United States, and India are Indonesia’s next three largest trading partners after China. Add Australia, and the Quad accounts for a larger percentage of Indonesia’s trade than does China.  

Indonesia has the room to maneuver to resist Chinese pressure. It possesses a degree of leverage over China in its economic relations. Indonesian exports to China include raw materials, such as nickel and bauxite, for which there aren’t major alternative sources. Numerous Chinese trade routes to Africa and the Middle East also move through waters close to Indonesia. Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Indonesia in 2013 to announce the maritime arm of the BRI—known as the Maritime Silk Road—which envisions a network of ports and trading routes connecting China to the Mediterranean through Indonesian waters.

Indonesia has the room to maneuver to resist Chinese pressure.

BRI commitments to Indonesia have not amounted to much, inspiring both derision and resentment in the archipelago. The flagship project, a high-speed rail line connecting the capital of Jakarta to the city of Bandung, has been plagued by delays and mismanagement. That failure stands in stark contrast to Japanese-funded projects such as the Jakarta Mass Rapid Transit and the Surabaya–Jakarta medium-speed line, both of which have stayed on schedule and remained within their budgets. Courting more Japanese, Korean, or even Indian investment may be a better way for Jokowi—the self-proclaimed “infrastructure president”—to meet his lofty goals than depending on Chinese support.

A hardening of Indonesia’s position toward China would follow a trend among neighboring powers. It wasn’t long ago that Australia and Japan were as wary of upsetting China as Indonesia seems to be. As recently as last year, Australia remained largely beholden to Beijing, its economy dependent on China’s demand for Australian iron ore, coal, and agricultural exports. But Australia’s call for an independent international inquiry into the outbreak of COVID-19 quickly turned into a trade war with China; Beijing has imposed punitive restrictions on Australian trade.

Japan has long tried to balance its relations with China and with the United States to maintain access to both markets. But as China has grown more aggressive under Xi—and as U.S. policy in the region has become more chaotic under President Donald Trump—Tokyo has recalibrated its stance and even started providing Japanese companies with financial incentives to move operations away from China to Southeast Asia, most notably to another potential Quad ally, Vietnam.

ACTING ITS SIZE

Indonesian leaders might be inching in the direction of closer alignment with Quad countries. Indonesia has already begun helping Australia offset lost demand from China for its agricultural products after the enactment of a free trade agreement in July. Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto has met with officials from India, Japan, and the United States in the past few months. Details of these meetings aren’t available to the public, but it is likely that Prabowo raised concerns about China. The defense minister ran for president in 2014 on a platform that was far more hostile toward China than that of his opponent (and now boss), Jokowi. On the campaign trail, he warned that Indonesia was becoming too dependent on China and promised to review Chinese investment in the country. He believes that China’s potential domination of Asia is a serious security risk to Indonesia, and the more forceful Indonesian military response to the Natuna Sea incursions began after he became defense minister in late 2019. 

Despite his hostility toward China, Prabowo actually poses an obstacle to Indonesia’s participation in the Quad. Until earlier this year, he was on a U.S. travel blacklist for his part in the violence in East Timor in the 1990s, when he was a general in the armed forces. The legacy of the Suharto era, in which the military perpetuated brutal human rights abuses, still hangs over Indonesia. The country has failed to hold perpetrators accountable for war crimes and has even allowed some of them, including Prabowo, to attain high office. U.S. congressional restrictions limit military assistance, training, and arms sales between the two countries until Indonesia addresses its record of war crimes.  Jakarta and Washington will have to iron out these differences should Indonesia choose to tighten its cooperation with the Quad.

Future Indonesian policy toward China could reflect the convictions of figures such as Prabowo more than those of the more reticent Jokowi. Jakarta cannot stand alone in the face of China’s  increasing assertiveness and expanding military presence. It is time for Indonesia to claim a global role befitting its size. The swiftest and most effective way to do so would be to work more closely with the Quad, allying with powers with which it shares profound trade and geopolitical interests. Jakarta could strengthen a robust alliance that would prevent Southeast Asia from falling irrevocably into China’s sphere of influence.

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  • NITHIN COCA is a freelance journalist who covers political, social, and environmental issues across Asia. 
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