Chinese President Xi Jinping with Indonesian counterpart Joko Widodo in Beijing on July 26, 2022. Photo: Handout

JAKARTA – Following on from his brave attempt at shuttle diplomacy between Ukraine and Russia, President Joko Widodo’s visit to Beijing this week may have been framed by the bilateral relationship but it was also clearly directed at getting China to do more to end the Eastern European conflict ahead of November’s G20 summit in Bali.

While it was short on specifics, a typically-bland joint statement after Widodo’s July 26 meeting with President Xi Jinping said the two leaders had reached “an important consensus” in discussing “a wide range of international and regional issues of shared interest.”

Coming after Widodo’s earlier session with Premier Li Keqiang, the statement said Indonesia was ready to work with China to “ensure peace and stability through dialogue and diplomacy,” noting that the presidents had assigned their foreign ministers to discuss the elements and principles of this objective.

A subsequent meeting between Indonesian maritime affairs coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan, the point man in Indonesia’s economic dealings with Beijing, and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi covered trade and investment, the G20 and the situation in Ukraine.

Indonesian commentators now see their country as China’s biggest ally in Southeast Asia, at least in economic terms, with two-way trade exceeding US$124 billion in 2021, up 58% year-on-year. Chinese investment peaked at $2.3 billion in the second quarter of this year, a fourfold increase over the same period in 2021.

Indonesia is still facing the possibility of a boycott among Western members of the G20 in the unlikely event Russian President Vladimir Putin decides to brave the storm and attend the summit, a situation Widodo wants to avoid at all cost.  

Despite widespread skepticism in the West about Widodo’s untested diplomatic skills, independent observers point out that Indonesia’s working relationships with the United States, China, Russia and Ukraine put it in a unique position to talk to all sides.

“As chairman of the G20, Indonesia has to be seen to be doing something,” says one regional analyst. “It should get more credit for what it has done so far. At least it is putting its shoulder to the wheel while other countries sit on the sidelines and do nothing.”

Indeed, Widodo could argue that he helped push this week’s United Nations-brokered agreement to lift the Russian naval blockade and allow Ukrainian wheat to flow out of Odesa and other Black Sea ports to avert a growing global food crisis.

But a senior Indonesian analyst believes he missed a “golden chance” to gather a stronger hand of cards by neglecting to stop over in Turkey, the crucial player in forging the subsequent agreement. “It would have made Indonesia much more relevant,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, talks to Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi on May 18, 2016. The current question is, will the two meet in Bali? Photo: AFP

Widodo’s meeting with Xi, the first foreign head of state to meet the Chinese leader since the Winter Olympics last February, discussed a “new synergy” between the two countries through four-pillar cooperation covering politics, the economy, people-to-people exchanges and maritime projects.

The two presidents said they believed China-Indonesia relations had “great strategic significance and far-reaching global influence” and agreed to forge an “exemplary model for major developing countries seeking mutual benefits and win-win results.”

“Facts have proven that a sound China-Indonesia relationship not only serves the shared long-term interests of both countries, but also has positive far-reaching impacts regionally and globally,” Xi was quoted as saying in a separate statement.

The pro-Beijing Global Times saw the visit as highlighting “the unity and collaboration of developing countries in offsetting the besiege (sic) of the small US-led clique and becoming the stabilizer of the world.”

Although Ukraine was on the agenda, it was doubtful whether the two presidents discussed the increasingly violent situation in Myanmar, where only a day before the military junta announced it had executed four pro-democracy activists.

The executions are certain to put further Western pressure on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to suspend Myanmar from the organization it joined in 1997, in a move member states had hoped greater engagement and cooperation would lead to more stable and open governance.

Now, concerns are rising armed resistance to last year’s coup and suspension of democracy could have spillover effects into the wider region, including the threat of instability and refugee flows along China’s southern border.

Diplomats are hard-pressed to explain the junta’s latest uncompromising move only days before the ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting in Cambodia. Certainly, it seems to rule out international acceptance – though China could be an exception – of elections military strongman Min Aung Hlaing has promised “without fail” by August next year.

His pledge to lift the country’s state of emergency by that time appears equally unattainable given anecdotal evidence of a widening rebellion mounted by People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) that UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet says should now be called a civil war. 

Widodo’s China venture once again underlined the careful line Indonesia is treading with the civilian government continuing to treat Beijing as a key partner in its economic development program and the military leaning towards the United States and its allies.

“Somehow it seems to work,” says the Indonesian analyst, who has hands-on experience in foreign relations. “It’s clear that China knows that Indonesia does have the resolve to push back on sovereignty issues” – however much it strenuously relies on back channels to do so. 

The day before Widodo departed for Beijing, visiting US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Mark Milley used a stopover in Jakarta to warn that China’s military had become significantly more aggressive and dangerous over the past five years.

Indonesia’s military chief General Andika Perkasa and US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley salute while inspecting the troops during a welcoming ceremony at the Indonesian Military Headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 24, 2022. Photo: Screengrab / PBS

Although Indonesian conspiracy theorists were convinced otherwise, the first visit by America’s top-ranking military official in 14 years was actually planned well in advance of Widodo’s North Asia swing, which also took in Japan and South Korea.

Widodo’s Beijing visit came as forces from the US, Indonesia, Australia and Japan gathered for this year’s annual Garuda Shield, their biggest-ever combined arms exercise ranging across southern Sumatra, East Kalimantan and North Sulawesi between August 1 and 14.

Earlier plans for an amphibious landing in Indonesia’s Natuna islands have been called off, ostensibly for logistical reasons though previous exercises have always steered clear of the politically-sensitive southern reaches of the South China Sea where China lays claims.

Only last year a Chinese research vessel and two escorts spent seven weeks inside Indonesia’s Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ), seeking to enforce Beijing’s illegal nine-dash line of national sovereignty, which intrudes into the outer parts of the Natuna archipelago.

Milley said the number of intercepts by Chinese aircraft and ships in the Asia-Pacific region with the US and other allied forces has increased significantly, along with the frequency of unsafe interactions in the South China Sea.

The general stopped over in Jakarta on his way to attend a meeting of Indo-Pacific defense chiefs in Australia where the participants focused on the Chinese navy’s recent renewed efforts to extend its reach into the Pacific islands – a move that has alarmed Australia and New Zealand.