The Platform

Shilpy Arora; Photo illustration by John Lyman

Before getting into bed with the Chinese, Joko Widodo should have considered what he’d have to give up in return.

Indonesia, navigating the intricate channels of its relationship with China under President Xi Jinping’s rule, finds itself caught in a precarious balancing act. The government of Joko Widodo has accepted two inversely proportional offerings from Beijing: the allure of economic development opportunities (investment and loans), and the chilling affront of sovereignty violations (a unilateral claim over the northern part of Indonesia’s Natuna Regency).

This economic enticement held particular appeal for Jakarta, as Beijing offered a quicker and more cost-effective business deal compared to that of Indonesia’s longtime ally, the United States. However, the economic advantages received from China carry a high price—not monetary, but a cost paid in sovereignty.

Widodo’s visit to China in late July came as a response to Xi Jinping’s invitation and marked a decade of a comprehensive strategic partnership between the two nations. Before his departure, Widodo assured the press that the South China Sea issue would feature prominently in his discussions with China’s top leader.

Widodo’s assertion appears both truthful and earnest, but what kind of dialogue has he engaged in? Has it resulted in any resolution, or are the talks mere casual conversations without real substance? The ambiguity persists. When Widodo concluded his visit, the tangible outcomes were limited to economic and business agreements.

Indonesia’s national news agency, Antara News, detailed eight agreements from the meeting. They encompassed areas ranging from health cooperation to agricultural markets, from plant breeding and marine cultivation industries to the development of Indonesia’s new capital city, Nusantara. However, missing from this comprehensive list was any mention of the South China Sea.

An additional outcome of the visit was an $11.5 billion investment commitment from Hong Kong-based Xinyi Glass Holdings Ltd., the world’s largest glass manufacturer. The plan includes the development of a glass and solar panel manufacturing facility on the island of Rempang, part of the Riau Islands Province near Singapore.

Yet, despite these gains, the facts suggest Widodo prioritized business over the bold and serious discussion, if not resolution, of China’s threat to Indonesia’s maritime sovereignty. Why was the South China Sea issue absent among the eight agreements, despite Widodo’s promise to address it?

Examples of China’s violations of Indonesia’s maritime territorial sovereignty and integrity are plentiful and apparent. The intrusive actions by Chinese ships near Indonesian territories and intimidating behavior toward local fishermen reveal a consistent pattern.

Long has China’s unilateral interference in Indonesia’s territorial waters caused concern. Yet, the Indonesian government’s reluctance to assert security over the issue is evident. Although efforts were once made to make China’s South China Sea claim a security problem, the will to continue securitization has waned.

The hesitancy has become more pronounced as of June, with Indonesia moving ASEAN’s first joint military exercise away from the disputed waters, evidently to placate China. This relocation hints at a de-securitization strategy.

Fear of endangering beneficial cooperation with China seems to underpin Indonesia’s avoidance of the South China Sea issue. The Indonesian elite’s increasing reliance on China’s private and public support is tangible in projects such as high-speed rail and other large infrastructure projects. Aggressively raising the South China Sea issue could risk the significant economic progress Indonesia has achieved.

After all, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Indonesia’s considerable dependence on China’s willingness to support its economic growth renders securitizing the South China Sea a non-option for the foreseeable future. Sacrificing sovereignty to ensure China’s investment comfort appears to be Indonesia’s current path, a telling testament to its increasing reliance on China’s economic incentives. If future developments contradict this narrative, it may signal a decrease in Indonesia’s dependency on China’s support—an intricate dance of power, business, and sovereignty on the world’s stage.

Mahbi Maulaya is a private researcher. His research interests concern Security and Strategic Studies surrounding the Asia-Pacific, the South China Sea, and Indonesia. His writing has been published in journals and international media outlets like the Intermestic: Journal of International Studies, the Peace, Conflict, and Diplomacy Journal, the Nation State Journal of International Studies, the Policy Forum, and Modern Diplomacy.