What do China-US tensions mean for Indonesia’s diplomacy?

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (third right) picured with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping (far right) and Russia's Vladimir Putin (second right). Photo: The Russian Presidential Press and Information Office / CC BY

As the United States and China compete for influence in Southeast Asia, could Indonesia’s efforts help keep ASEAN neutral?

By Umair Jamal

During his first address at the United Nations General Assembly in late September, Indonesian President Joko Widodo warned the world of looming dangers from Washington and Beijing’s geopolitical rivalry in Southeast Asia. 

“War will benefit no one. There is no point of celebrating victory among ruins. There is no point of becoming the largest economic power in the midst of a sinking world,” he said.

“If division and rivalries continue to persist, then I am concerned that the pillars of stability and sustainable peace will crumble or even [be] destroyed.”

His statement came as tensions between the United States and China rise in the South China Sea, putting Jakarta’s diplomatically neutral stance under pressure.

Beijing and Washington have paid little attention to Indonesia’s efforts to maintain ties with both sides. With the South China Sea fast becoming a proxy for Washington and Beijing’s deepening rivalry, Indonesia’s political stance may become largely irrelevant to the two powers. Instead, Indonesia should turn to ASEAN as a whole if it wants its diplomacy to produce some meaningful results. 

What do US-China tensions mean for Indonesia?

Like many Southeast Asian states, Indonesia worries that a war between Beijing and Washington in its backyard may prove devastating. The region would struggle, whether states remain neutral or join one side against the other.

Moreover, Indonesia realizes that it is being turned into a pawn between the two states. Jakarta doesn’t want to be seen as siding with either country, particularly at a time when the United States is absent from prominent regional trade forums and negotiations. A report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) notes that “With trade being one of the region’s top priorities, lack of US support for multilateral trade arrangements significantly degrades the United States’ standing as a partner for Southeast Asia.”

Washington has been pushing Southeast Asian states to counter China’s influence in the region, but Indonesia and its neighbors cannot openly stand up to China without support.

Widodo (right) meeting with US Defense Secretary James Mattis. Photo: Amber I. Smith – James N. Mattis / CC BY

Do the tensions put Indonesia’s diplomacy under pressure?

Indonesia has become increasingly vocal about the dangers of the China-US rivalry in Southeast Asia. Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, recently told Washington and Beijing that her country doesn’t want to be entangled in their regional struggle for influence. In an interview with Reuters, Retno said that “We don’t want to get trapped by this rivalry” and advised ASEAN to remain neutral.

However, it is unlikely that Indonesia’s policy of keeping a working relationship with both countries will succeed.

Reportedly, Indonesia is going to house US companies that are relocating from China in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and an escalating trade war with Beijing. Beijing will neither approve of nor appreciate Jakarta’s offer. In the coming weeks and months, we may see China’s response in the form of increased naval presence in Indonesian waters.

Last month, an Indonesian patrol ship confronted a Chinese coast guard vessel that spent almost three days in Indonesian waters at the southern edge of China’s South China Sea claims. The vessel’s presence is a warning of what is to come if the country sides with the US.

A report from the US Department of Defense in September also claimed that China is considering building a military base in Indonesia. It is “very likely [that China is] already considering and planning for additional overseas military logistics facilities to support naval, air, and ground forces” in the region, the report says with reference to Indonesia as a potential base location.

However, Indonesia rejected the report. “Indonesia won’t be a military base for any country,” Retno said. “I want to emphasize that, in accordance with the lines and principles of Indonesian foreign policy, Indonesian territory cannot and will not be used as a military facility for any country.”

For Beijing, a military foothold in Indonesia would help support its maritime claims, according to Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat of the Universitas Islam Indonesia. “Even though Indonesia is not directly involved in disputes in the South China Sea, it is strategically located,” wrote Rakhmat in The Conversation. “Indonesia’s northern Natuna region is not far from the South China Sea” and can help Beijing “to secure its interests in the South China Sea.”

This is exactly the position Indonesia doesn’t want to be in. Indonesia understands the threats that the US and China’s rivalry poses to its diplomatic and economic interests. Though there is little the country can do to ease tensions between Washington and Beijing, Indonesia can push for a response at the ASEAN level. Unless Southeast Asia comes together to formulate a joint response to the growing China-US rivalry in the region, Indonesia’s position will only grow weaker in the coming months and years.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15