The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

The problem for outgoing President Joko Widodo is that it’s doubtful he even knows where he stands on China.

Under outgoing President Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s dance with China has oscillated between embrace and distance, leading observers to scrutinize the consistency of Jakarta’s foreign policy. The complexity of this relationship is encapsulated in Indonesia’s economic and military interactions with China, set against a backdrop of regional tensions and domestic imperatives.

Economically, the Widodo era has witnessed a robust intertwining of interests between Jakarta and Beijing. As per data from Indonesia’s Central Statistics Agency, the trade volume with China soared past $100 billion in 2021—a stark contrast to the figures with India. China emerged as a top investor in Indonesia, neck-and-neck with other key players like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan, injecting a substantial $7.4 billion into the nation’s economy. This uptrend continued into the final quarter of 2022, with China’s investments reaching $3 billion.

In May 2021, the Sino-Indonesian rapport was demonstrated in a collaborative search for the sunken KRI Nanggala-402 submarine. With assets from the Chinese Navy at the disposal of the search efforts, this cooperation marked a significant milestone in military diplomacy between the two nations.

Yet, the tranquility of these relations has been perturbed by ongoing disputes, notably in the resource-rich waters of the South China Sea. Chinese maritime incursions around North Natuna Island have cast a shadow over Indonesia’s claims of sovereignty. Additionally, Chinese-backed endeavors in Maluku and Sulawesi—touted to propel Indonesia’s foray into the electric vehicle market—have drawn criticism for their ecological and social repercussions.

The fulcrum of Indonesia’s foreign policy has traditionally pivoted on a doctrine of autonomy and active engagement, a philosophy crafted by Mohammad Hatta, the nation’s first vice president. A burgeoning relationship with the United States offers a counterbalance to Beijing’s influence, a dynamic that has evolved since the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The Super Garuda Shield exercises, with participants ranging from Japan to France, symbolize this burgeoning security alliance, aimed at fostering multilateral cooperation.

Despite these overtures to diversify its partnerships, Indonesia’s official rhetoric has often been at odds with its actions, most notably reflected in President-elect Prabowo Subianto’s remarks characterizing China as a “friendly country.” This dissonance points to an underlying ambiguity in Jakarta’s stance.

With the presidency and vice presidency slated to change hands in October, the continuity of President Widodo’s China policy is a subject of debate among analysts. Some contend that the time is ripe for Indonesia to reaffirm its foundational foreign policy principles and recalibrate its approach toward Beijing.

India’s audacity

India’s strategy, a melange of pragmatism and shrewd opportunism, finds its voice in Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister. Jaishankar’s book The India Way, paints a diplomatic fresco of diversification and strategic autonomy: from engaging the United States, and managing China, to cultivating European ties, assuring Russia, involving Japan, embracing neighbors, and widening support networks. This doctrine has been India’s compass in navigating the tempestuous waters of Sino-Indian relations, resisting China’s encircling strategies through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and investments in the Indian Ocean littorals of Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

India’s resolve crystalized with its engagement in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), and its decisive actions during border frictions with China—ranging from investment restrictions to app bans and Olympic boycotts. Yet, the economic magnetism between the world’s second and sixth-largest economies compels a dance of diplomacy, as noted by Jaishankar, who advocates for pragmatism over confrontation.

Between 2015 and 2022, India and China wove a complex tapestry of economic interdependence, a dynamic further entrenched by India’s active participation in China-founded initiatives like the AIIB and the NDB, along with the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

India’s strategic poise—bolstering military ties with the U.S. and allies while maintaining a calibrated distance—reflects a doctrine of non-alignment 2.0, a deft blend of alignment and autonomy.

For Indonesia, India’s playbook offers a masterclass in geopolitical agility. Jakarta would do well to mirror New Delhi’s judicious engagement, asserting sovereignty while navigating a course that avoids becoming ensnared in great power rivalries. Articulate pronouncements and strategic partnerships are the tools by which Indonesia might temper Chinese influence. The archipelagic nation’s journey through the “grey domain” is fraught; without adopting a page from India’s strategy, it risks being subsumed by the currents of China’s assertive foreign policy ambitions.

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.

Gufron Gozali is a junior research assistant from the Islamic University of Indonesia, whose research focuses on the United States and the Middle East.