By Taha Amir
Indonesia is a turgid evolving economy in Southeast Asia, with a gross domestic product of over US$1 trillion. The country’s size and location have made Indonesia an appealing strategic confederate for China and the United States to coax the ASEAN region. Indonesia has endeavoured to remain nonaligned in the China-U.S rivalry, but if latent hostility between the two resumes to rise, will Indonesia be forced to take sides or embrace a foreign policy that doesn’t align with either superpower? For Indonesia, ties with rival superpowers like china and US have always been a balancing act. Indonesia has pledged to free and active diplomacy since gaining independence in 1945, a strategy that has promptly grown the nation to harvest the benefits of having millions of acquaintances and zero foes. But as deteriorating US-China relations resume to polarise the region into rival alliances, can Indonesia hold this balance?
A “Free and active ” foreign policy:
Abode to 278 million people, Indonesia has long been an executive in southeast Asia. It is the only state in the region in G20 and is a charter member of ASEAN, the association of southeast Asian nations. In addition, Indonesian leaders often see their role as a neutral third party in world affairs that can act as a bridge between rival countries in times of crisis. A few months back, Indonesian president Joko Widodo visited Ukraine and Russia, which is the latest sign of this approach. Indonesia has also proposed to assist in reconciling the west and Iran over its nuclear programme and maintain diplomatic ties with both north and south Korea. Its relationship with China and US is a similar balancing act. To see this, you only need to look at two places, Bandung and Batam.
Infrastructure and Defence:
China has subsidised an estimated US$7.9 billion in Indonesian infrastructure projects as part of its enterprising belt and road initiative. For illustration, China has assisted Indonesia in cultivating a high-speed rail line converging the Indonesian capital Jakarta with the country’s fourth-largest city Bandung. The high-speed rail line was meant to initiate operations in 2019. Instead, in 2022 it’s three years past the due date and at least one year from completion. Once a virtuous sign of China’s ability to beat regional competitors like Japan in high-speed rail projects, the Jakarta-Bandung rail line has become symbolic of Indonesia’s concern over Chinese investment. Some Indonesian politics and international relations scholars have shown great apprehension that Indonesia would plunge into China’s debt snare. They exclaimed that if we took many loans from china, many Chinese workers would enter Indonesia. That is what makes people dubious. Also, they say that we might become like Sri Lanka, which is often quoted by the international community as being seized in China’s debt trap. Still, China far outstrips the US regarding investment in Indonesia. China is the third largest investor, with approximately US$24.5 billion invested since 2000. On the other hand, the US financed some US$20 billion over the same period. But while China has concentrated on economic acquisition to win favour, the US has taken a different approach: increasing defence ties.
Indonesia has emceed US military officials for joint exercises and exhibitions which showcased the country’s armed forces. In addition, the two countries traditionally collaborated on counter-terrorism efforts. But in recent years, this partnership has shifted to a new front: the South China Sea. The US is spending some US$3.5 million on a training centre and naval base in Batam, an Indonesian island on the periphery of the south China sea and right in the middle of vital shipping lanes. However, the most significant hazard to Indonesia in the South China sea is China itself, which is mired in maritime disputes around Indonesia’s Natuna Islands.
Is a Span too far?
So far, Indonesia has persisted neutral despite intensifying the US-China rivalry. Indonesia has futilely tried bringing the two parties together before, including during the 2018 APEC meeting in Papua New Guinea. Chinese President Xi Jinping, at an APEC meeting, enunciated that the US should reject attempts to form exclusive blocs or impose one’s will on others. At the same time, US Vice President articulated that China had taken advantage of the US for many years, and those days were over. The meeting concluded with member economies dissenting on a final declaration, a first for APEC.
Since then, the relationship has only grown tenser. A recent poll conducted in 2022 found that 82% of Americans held an inimical view of China, a six-point increase over the previous years’ polling data. Multiple surveys conducted in China show a similar level of scepticism. For example, 64% of Chinese said that US-China relations were deteriorating daily. In Indonesia, 60% expressed that Indonesia should join efforts to limit China’s clout in Asia. But if a war between China and US were to break out, a staggering bulk, 84%, says Indonesia should remain neutral. So what does this all mean?
Suppose the tension between the United States and China increases, and Indonesia has to take a side. In this instance, many assume that Indonesia will prefer the United States because the United States has always been less ominous than China. However, it also means that more than economic investments, while important, are needed to tip the scale in China’s favour. Undoubtedly China has made a lot of financial assets in Indonesia, so if china wants to balance itself against the US, it cannot concentrate only on the economy. Of course, the economy is essential, but it also has to look at far more scope. It has to stop the astigmatic focus only on Bejing’s interests, but it also has to look at what Jakarta wants.
Still, belligerent posturing by Washington and a renewed push for security and trade blocs like AUKUS and QAUD are inadequately received in Jakarta. Unless things change, Indonesia seems to persist in following the middle path, “friends to all, enemies to none, and a bridge between rivals whenever possible”.
Taha Amir is a student pursing a BS degree in Defense and Strategic Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad. Currently, he is an intern at The Consul Monthly Magazine. Moreover, he has also published articles for the London institute of Peace and research. (lipr.org.uk ). He has recently completed his internship at ISPR (Interservice public relations) Pakistan Army Media wing