The Platform

President Joe Biden walks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo in 2022. (Adam Schultz)

Indonesia’s Joko Widodo has done little to pushback against China’s Xi Jinping.

Sporting a formal suit and accompanied by his wife, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, made his appearance in Chengdu, China. His primary aim? To meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The rendezvous marked a decade since the inception of the comprehensive strategic partnership between Indonesia and China. A prominent point on the agenda was the Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Railway (KCJB) project, a venture steeped in controversy.

During his tête-à-tête with the Chinese leader, Jokowi underscored economic cooperation as the top priority for Indonesia. Encouragingly, both leaders converged on eight significant agreements encompassing sectors like health, agriculture, research and development, and investment in the Nusantara Capital City (IKN). They shared enthusiasm for the burgeoning “Two Country, Twin Parks” initiative, an effort focused on fortifying the food industry supply chain in support of the Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF).

As reported on July 28, a marquee aspect of Jokowi’s visit was a colossal investment linked to the glass industry and the Xinyi company. This firm pledged a staggering $11.5 billion for the downstream project and solar panel production, including operations in Batam, a small city near Singapore.

The success of the Jokowi-Xi summit can be attributed to the robust economic and trade ties between the two nations. Official data reveals that bilateral trade reached a monumental $133.7 billion in 2022. Chinese investment also climbed, swelling by $8.2 billion during the same year, making it second only to Singapore’s contributions. The Jakarta Globe revealed that in the first half of 2023 alone, Chinese investment tallied up to $3.8 billion.

Despite these promising figures, Jokowi must grapple with a suite of significant challenges in the Indonesia-China relationship, many of which require critical resolution. It remains unclear if Jokowi has taken into account reports and studies produced by Indonesian researchers and think tanks outlining these problems.

One such concern is the South China Sea. Ahead of his trip to China, Indonesian media outlets probed Jokowi about his reaction to China’s belligerence in the South China Sea. Jokowi responded that he would address the matter with President Xi.

However, no such dialogue has occurred due to conflicting views over maritime claims. China remains steadfast in its claims, relying on the contentious nine-dash line, while Indonesia bases its claims on the Law of the Sea Convention. China’s dubious claims have led to several instances of Chinese naval deployments within Indonesian territorial waters.

The Indonesian government has responded, but it has yet to find a viable solution.

Recently, China and ASEAN (which includes Indonesia) agreed to incrementally resolve disputes involving the South China Sea by 2026 – a process begun over two decades ago. Most analysts predict an uneven process unless both parties align their perspectives on the South China Sea.

Jokowi should have broached this issue during his meeting with Xi. The Indonesian leader needs to demonstrate his mettle and ensure China pays the price if its military continues to show hostilities towards Indonesian maritime vessels.

Additionally, Jokowi should revisit the Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Railway deal. After failed attempts by Indonesia’s Coordinator of Maritime and Investment, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, to negotiate a lower interest rate from 3.4% to 2% with China, Indonesia bore the brunt of the impact. Among the consequences was the potential for a cost overrun.

In this context, Jokowi should step up and directly renegotiate the interest rates with President Xi. It is also crucial for Indonesia not to fixate solely on fostering bilateral relations, but to assess the existing challenges and strategize accordingly.

Indonesia needs to tread cautiously with China. It is vital for the government to diversify its alliances and reduce overdependence on a single partner.

M Habib Pashya is a Master's student at Universitas Gadjah Mada majoring in International Relations. His academic research primarily focuses on Indonesia-China relations, Indonesia's foreign policy, and the U.S.-China-Taiwan relations.