China’s Charm Offensive in Indonesia and the Implications for Japan

This year, Indonesia will host successive G20-related meetings. Some members of the grouping, such as the United States, Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom, strongly oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attendance at the summit meeting because of his ongoing invasion of Ukraine. In response, the Indonesian government has urged Russia and Ukraine – the aggressor and victim of the conflict, respectively – to jointly attend the G20 summit in Bali this November in a bid to end the war. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), Russia’s close partner, seems supportive of Putin’s participation in the upcoming event, backing Moscow’s aspiration to maintain its official membership in the intergovernmental gathering.

To curb the expansion of the Western camp led by Washington in Asia during the crisis in Europe, Beijing has focused on and put diplomatic energy into its relationship with Southeast Asian nations, especially Indonesia, which seeks to retain neutrality between the U.S. and China.

The current Chinese approaches toward Indonesia are worth analyzing, and they potentially have important implications for many countries in the Indo-Pacific region, especially Japan, which competes with China to achieve a free and rules-based regional order.

Indonesia in China’s Strategic Calculus

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Given the intensifying rivalry between Washington and Beijing, Jakarta’s geopolitical importance for China is ascending globally and regionally. Indonesia sits at the center of the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Xi Jinping announced the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative, the maritime component of the BRI and a counterpart to the Silk Road Economic Belt, during a visit to Jakarta in 2013. The heft of the largest nation in Southeast Asia is manifested in the recent proactive Chinese economic diplomacy toward the administration of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, which has seen the inauguration of such projects as the Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Railway.

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The G7 summit in London last June marked an important watershed for Beijing’s gambit to lure Indonesia. Just before the G7 leaders’ meeting, in which four democratic states (Australia, India, South Africa, and South Korea) were taking part for the first time, China and Indonesia co-chaired the “Inaugural Meeting of the China-Indonesia High-level Dialogue Cooperation Mechanism” in Guiyang. The meeting saw the two sides sign a new memorandum of understanding on maritime cooperation alongside the existing focuses on politics, economy, and cultural exchange, and. Since the conference, Chinese officials have reiterated a mantra of China-Indonesia relations being a “four-wheel drive,” a reference to these four areas of cooperation. After the meeting, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi remarked that both sides agreed to accelerate the negotiation of the long-awaited Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.

Considering that Indonesia did not participate in the G7, despite its status as a rising democratic power in Asia, it is conceivable that Beijing was driven by the intention of winning over Jakarta to its side to counterbalance the enlargement of the democratic club.

In the last couple of years, concerns about China’s increasing presence in the South China Sea, above all in the waters around the Natuna Islands, have been growing in Indonesia. The Jokowi administration seems to set up a special economic zone in the Islands to strengthen its maritime security posture where Beijing’s claims on sovereignty partly overlap with Jakarta’s, and where Chinese vessels have often sailed in the past few years.

Conversely, China is trying to reassure its counterpart by making a series of collaborative gestures. Shortly after his arrival in Jakarta, Lu Kang, the Chinese ambassador to Indonesia, pledged to strengthen the mutual ties between China and Indonesia under the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. During a phone call conversation with Joko Widodo last March, mentioning the “four-wheel drive” phrase relevant to maritime cooperation in the South China Sea, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that Beijing is prepared “to maintain close communication with Indonesia to promote continued and new development in bilateral friendship and cooperation so as to inject more stability and positive energy into regional and global development.”

Concerning global problems, Beijing is also active in communicating with Jakarta. For instance, the Chinese and Indonesian foreign ministers exchanged views on the conflict in Ukraine in March and then again in May, according to the website of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On March 31, while the world was preoccupied with Ukraine, the PRC chaired the first meeting of “Neighboring Countries of Afghanistan Plus Afghanistan” in China. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, who was in China for a diplomatic visit, was invited to the conference as a guest. The ingenious invitation of the Indonesian foreign minister implies Beijing’s preference for collaboration with Indonesia – the world’s largest Muslim nation – on Afghan affairs, something in which the U.S. has long been deeply involved and recently withdrawn.

Regarding the concept of the Indo-Pacific, which has become the main arena for great power competition, China has remained suspicious of the geographic idea, which is being promoted by its rivals, such as the U.S. and Japan. Meanwhile, Indonesia took leadership in the formulation of the ASEAN’s Outlook of the Indo-Pacific because of its sense of urgency to protect the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to Asian diplomacy.

However, the formation of the AUKUS security partnership prompted displeasure from Jakarta and created room for China to drive a wedge between Indonesia and other promoters of the Indo-Pacific concept. Beijing expressed sympathy for Jakarta’s view that Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS framework might affect regional security negatively and worsen non-proliferation. The PRC immediately echoed Indonesia’s critical voice over the new Anglo-Saxon alliance and blamed the three states for escalating regional tensions, prompting an arms race, threatening regional peace, and undermining non-proliferation efforts. China’s clear support of the Indonesian attitude toward AUKUS was aimed at undermining the international reputation of the trilateral security pact. The PRC therefore used this incident as an opportunity to counter U.S. influence in Indonesia.

A rising China perceives that the U.S. has attempted to organize an Asian version of NATO in order to restrain its rising power, and the promotion of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP) and the establishment of AUKUS are part of Washington’s masterplan to encircle and contain China. From the Chinese perspective, because any encirclement or containment would need to include Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Beijing will continue to go to great lengths to avert the incorporation of Jakarta into the US-led anti-China coalition.

In the milieu of the fluid landscape of the Indo-Pacific, China and the U.S. are likely to scramble for Indonesia to enhance their competitive advantages over each other.

Chinese Statecraft toward Indonesia and Implications for Japan

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To contend with China’s reach into Southeast Asia, Japan and the U.S. conducted summit-level meetings with regional counterparts this spring. Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio visited Jakarta in April to promise Tokyo’s commitment to the FOIP vision. U.S. President Joe Biden then hosted the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit in Washington last month and vowed that U.S. will have more robust engagement in the region. During his visit to Japan this month, Biden announced that Indonesia is an original member of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), a U.S.-centered economic arrangement designed to counter China.

Japan champions a liberal, open, and rules-based international order, which forms the philosophical foundation of the Japanese version of FOIP. Concurrently, facing urgent security and economic challenges from Beijing, Tokyo has sought coalition-building endeavors in the Indo-Pacific, particularly with Southeast Asian states including Indonesia, taking separate, but complementary approach to the U.S. policy.

Amid the Ukraine crisis and the U.S.-China antagonism, Japan needs to implement a more purified form of realism regarding its interactions with Southeast Asia. What Japan can carry out in the short-term will be the continuation of the FOIP and maritime capacity-building assistance to Southeast Asia, in which the Japanese government has helped to prop up the postures of coast guards in each country in the region.

In the future, while Japan should encourage ASEAN to be resilient and effective, Japan may have to pay more attention to maritime Southeast Asia – namely, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, and possibly Vietnam – because of the urgency of China’s maritime expansionism. During the second Japan-Indonesia Foreign and Defense Ministerial Meeting (“2+2”) in 2021, Tokyo and Jakarta concluded the Agreement concerning the Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology and confirmed the importance of maritime cooperation. It is expected that both countries will consolidate a closer bilateral relationship to achieve a free and open maritime order underscored by the rule of law.

As indicated by the recent survey of elite opinion by Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute indicates, Japan remains the most preferred strategic partner for Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, it should be noted that China is perceived as the most influential nation in the region after the COVID-19. Tokyo must elaborate a long-term effective strategy to offset Beijing’s influence in Southeast Asia. Indonesia is a vital partner if Japan is to realize the FOIP vision that emphasizes the significance of democratic values.