Maritime Tensions, Sailor Deaths Dim Milestone Year in Sino-Indonesian Ties

Ronna Nirmala
ID-CH-Diplomacy-xi1000 Indonesian President Joko Widodo (left) speaks to Chinese President Xi Jinping during a family photo session in front of Osaka Castle at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019.
[Pool photo via AP]

Indonesia and China are marking 70 years of diplomatic relations by touting economic ties and cooperation in the fight against COVID-19, but territorial tensions in the South China Sea and the deaths of Indonesians aboard Chinese fishing boats are dampening the anniversary spirit.

The leaders of the Asian giants exchanged praise during a phone call earlier this week as they discussed bilateral trade and investment, as well as joint efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic, among other issues.

President Xi Jinping hailed Indonesia as “a friendly neighbor and important partner” during the conversation with Indonesian counterpart Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on Monday, according to a statement from the Chinese government.

China said its investments in Indonesia had grown in the first half of this year despite COVID-19 – and so did Indonesia’s exports to China.

“This is a testament to the solid foundation and strong momentum of cooperation between the two countries,” the Chinese government said.

China, the world’s most populous country, is Indonesia’s largest trading partner. Last year, the Asian superpower overtook Japan to become the second largest foreign investor in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.

China has also invested billions in infrastructure projects in the Indonesian archipelago as part of One Belt, One Road (OBOR), Beijing’s ambitious program to build an international network of ports, highways, railways, bridges and power plants.

During Monday’s call Jokowi thanked Xi for his country’s support in helping Indonesia fight the pandemic, which originated in China. The Southeast Asian country leads East Asia in deaths from COVID-19. But it trails the Philippines for the most number of confirmed cases in the region, according to the latest data from U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

“I hope the relations and cooperation between the two countries will be stronger and mutually beneficial,” Jokowi told Xi, according to a statement released by his office.

However, the respective statements from both governments about the phone call did not say whether Xi and Jokowi touched on prickly issues that tested bilateral relations during the anniversary year.

Thorny issues

Earlier on in 2020, Indonesian and Chinese officials traded barbs as Jakarta accused Chinese fishing vessels of operating in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea off the Natuna Islands, while being escorted by Chinese coast guard ships.

China argued that the area was its traditional fishing ground, but Indonesia rejected this, saying Beijing’s historical claims to the area violated the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Jakarta this year also pressed China to investigate the deaths of at least 16 Indonesian crewmembers of Chinese fishing boats since late 2019 amid accusations that the sailors had worked in harsh conditions.

“We reminded [China] that compliance with international law should be a priority. And if we look at the current developments, we can see that China understands this,” Santo Darmosumarto, the director for East Asia and the Pacific at the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told BenarNews, referring to tensions around the Natunas.

Indonesia does not have official territorial claims to the South China Sea, but four other Southeast Asian states, plus China and Taiwan, have overlapping claims to the waterway, where Beijing has been building artificial islands and expanding its military footprint.

“From the outset, Indonesia has only stated that it wants to be an honest broker to provide a peaceful resolution, to prevent tensions in the South China Sea from becoming an open and dangerous conflict that would threaten the stability of the Southeast Asian region,” said Rene Pattiradjawane, chairman of the Center for Chinese Studies, a Jakarta think-tank.

Still, the two countries need to work together to resolve the cases involving Indonesian sailors, he said.

“It is the duty of the governments of the two countries to ensure that incidents related to crew members are minimized and ensure that they do not cause unnecessary turmoil,” Rene told BenarNews.

During a working visit to China last month, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said she had demanded that Beijing ensure the safety of Indonesian sailors aboard China-flagged fishing vessels.

Retno also said she had stressed to Chinese counterpart Wang Yi that respect for international law in the South China Sea was necessary for strong ties between Beijing and Southeast Asian nations.

“I conveyed again our concern about the cases that have befallen Indonesian crew members who work on Chinese fishing vessels,” Retno said during a virtual press conference from Sanya city in Hainan province.

“I emphasized that … the government must be involved to ensure that these humanitarian violations do not occur in the future.”

Longtime ties

Indonesia and China first established diplomatic relations in 1950. Indonesia, then led by President Sukarno, was the first nation in Southeast Asia behind North Vietnam to recognize Beijing, a year after the Chinese Communist Party founded the People’s Republic.

Sino-Indonesian relations were cut off in 1967, after Sukarno fell from power in the wake of a bloodbath targetting members of the Indonesian communist party (PKI), which was blamed for attempting a coup in September 1965. Many Indonesians suspected China of being linked to PKI.

Indonesia and China rekindled bilateral ties in 1990.

During the past 30 years, the giants have developed strong economic ties.

“Views of China as Indonesia’s most significant external threat have eased and it has been welcomed as a funder and business partner,” according to an article published Friday in the South China Morning Post that examined the 70th anniversary of the start of bilateral relations.

“But among security observers, suspicions over Beijing’s intentions – and questions over Indonesia’s economic reliance on China – persist and have fueled the belief that Jakarta should take a more strident tone towards Beijing’s expansive maritime claims,” it said.

As Rene described it, a trade imbalance that favors China also persists as a problem for Indonesia.

“In the context of bilateral trade, it is not balanced with the growing deficit on the Indonesian side and [this] has been going on for more than 10 years,” he said.

Data from the Indonesian Ministry of Trade show that Indonesia has sustained trade deficits with China since 2008, with a record deficit of U.S. $18.4 billion occurring in 2018.


During his phone call with Xi Jinping, President Jokowi expressed appreciation for what he said was “the Chinese government’s support to strengthen strategic health cooperation, including co-production and supply of the COVID-19 vaccine.”

He also welcomed a reciprocal agreement between the two countries to open green lanes for their nationals who have to go on essential business trips or official visits during the global coronavirus outbreak.

China, for its part, said it was serious about helping Indonesian overcome the public health crisis and cooperating with Jakarta in developing a vaccine for the disease. China’s Sinovac is currently conducting a third clinical trial of a COVID-19 vaccine in Indonesia in cooperation with Bio Farma, the Indonesian state-owned vaccine maker.

In its statement, China said it would “continue its firm support by providing supplies and technical assistance to the best of its ability and sharing containment and treatment experience with Indonesia.”

Muhammad Zulfikar Rachmat, a researcher at the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance (INDEF), said China could use vaccine cooperation as leverage to land more infrastructure projects in Indonesia.

“China is one of the few countries developing COVID-19 vaccines, and therefore it has bargaining power,” Zulfikar told BenarNews.

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