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Post-Election, Indonesian President Expected to Go Soft on China Despite Maritime Flaps

Incumbent Indonesian president Joko Widodo talks to media about the result of a presidential election, during a press briefing in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 18, 2019.
Incumbent Indonesian president Joko Widodo talks to media about the result of a presidential election, during a press briefing in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 18, 2019.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is expected to warm toward China in his second term in search of infrastructure funding instead of challenging Chinese sovereignty in a fishery-rich sea between them.

The leader who since 2014 has emphasized domestic issues in Asia’s third largest country rather than foreign policy initiatives will probably build up Indonesia’s status as a node in China’s $1 trillion-plus Belt and Road Initiative, scholars who know the country say. The 6-year-old initiative is aimed at opening trade routes around Eurasia via infrastructure projects.

Indonesia’s government will repel any Chinese vessels from waters it claims near the Natuna Islands, experts say, but otherwise avoid confronting the militarily stronger China over maritime sovereignty. The president, often known by his hybridized name Jokowi, won a second five-year term April 17.

“Although Jokowi sought to downplay Chinese-funded projects in recent elections, he is likely to continue the current stance of attracting Chinese capital for infrastructure development while reinforcing defenses around the Natuna islands against Chinese encroachments and illegal fishing,” said Mohan Malik, a professor in Asian security with the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in the United States.

Stable Sino-Indonesian relations would advance Beijing’s goal of keeping Western-aligned powers out of the South China Sea dispute, possibly in Indonesia’s defense, while ensuring that the impoverished archipelago of some 13,000 islands gets vital infrastructure support.

No compromise on the Natuna Islands

Widodo’s next five years as president are expected overall to extend his maritime policies since 2016. Widodo parted ways around then with five predecessors by trying to shape Indonesia as a maritime power, according to published research by the East-West Center think tank in Honolulu. It says he sought to turn Indonesia into a “two-ocean, Indo-Pacific power” in view of the archipelago’s expanse.

China claims most of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea that reaches from the Natuna chain to the Chinese mainland. China doesn’t claim the tiny Natuna islets, but in 2016 its foreign ministry cited historic rights for its fishing boats to use nearby waters.

Indonesian authorities have burned dozens of foreign fishing boats, and last year the country opened a base in the Natuna Islands with a hangar for drones and up to 1,000 personnel who could be trained for any kind of operation.

“Back then, Jokowi basically said you need to guard Indonesia’s status as a maritime power," said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, referring to Widodo's first term. The base, he said, "is in line, very clearly in line, with that.”

Also last year, Indonesia renamed part of the disputed ocean tract the North Natuna Sea, drawing an angry response from China.

China might look for natural gas deposits in the contested waters, said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. But if Indonesia just repels individual Chinese vessels without making a political scene, he said, it’s harder for China to initiate any trouble.

“Unless there’s provocation or an incident that comes up, Indonesia basically won’t react too much to the matter of those islands,” said Tai Wan-ping, Southeast Asia-specialized international business professor at Cheng Shiu University in Taiwan. "They might make a verbal response but not military action.”

Capital from China

Indonesia’s reliance on China for help developing infrastructure will temper ambitions to stand up for the Natuna waters, some analysts believe.

Widodo’s comments on foreign relations are aimed at courting Chinese development help rather than in taking a stand on “issues such as the South China Sea crisis,” writer Nithin Coca said in a report for the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia.

Indonesia was once “more cautious in its approach” to the Belt and Road, “conscious of ensuring that investments bring real benefits to the nation while minimizing any negative effects,” Jakarta-based investment research and advisory institute Tenggara Strategics said last year in a research paper.

In August, Widodo told the Indonesian People’s Consultative Assembly his government would focus on “acceleration of infrastructure development” to catch up with other countries and create new economic centers in the country.

China has already offered billions of U.S. dollars to Indonesia for infrastructure such as a railway line on the main island Java. Too much could irritate Indonesians who already resent China so much that they rioted in the 1960s against ethnic Chinese in their country.

“He wants the ports through the archipelago to be modernized and the sea lanes to become the really major safe transit route, and so getting extra crumbs or not so much crumbs, half a loaf of bread, from China would be to his advantage, but I think there also is an underlying anti-China sentiment in Indonesia,” Thayer said.