08.04.2020

Indonesia’s Global Maritime Fulcrum & China’s Belt Road Initiative: A match made at sea?

China has become Indonesia’s largest trading partner and its third largest foreign investor. Indonesia’s Global Maritime Fulcrum and China’s Belt Road Initiative at first glance seem to be like a perfect match. But bilateral relations have always been complicated by being entangled with Indonesian domestic politics.

© istock / CreativaImages

In late 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced China’s ambitious plan to build the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) to the world stage. Astana and Jakarta, the capital cities of Kazakhstan and Indonesia, respectively, were chosen as the locations for China to inform these two proposals which are now known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

As the biggest country in Southeast Asia with a population of 266 million and more than 17.000 islands, which stretch 5.000 kilometres from east to west, Indonesia sits at the nexus of global trade. Beijing’s choice of Jakarta to be the place for Xi Jinping to announce China’s plan to build the MSR is indicative of Chinese leaders’ clear understanding of the potential important role of Indonesia in their ambitious grand scheme.

 

Promoting maritime connectivity

During his first presidential campaign in 2014, the Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) brought forward the vision of realizing Indonesia as the Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF), making it the centre of his foreign policy agenda.

At first glance, the BRI and GMF seem highly complementary to each other. The idea to promote maritime connectivity in a region that is central to the Chinese initiative goes along with the emphasis on “maritime infrastructure development” in the ambitious Indonesian vision, serving partly to improve the country’s inter-island connectivity and domestic development through infrastructure investment and economic diplomacy. For instance, both countries are already collaborating with each other on the development of the flagship BRI project in Indonesia, namely the 142-km highspeed-railway connecting Jakarta to Bandung, the capital of the West Java Province.

 

Widening Indonesia’s geostrategic canvas

There are indeed strong incentives to further connect Indonesia’s GMF policy with China’s BRI, and China´s MSR and Indonesia´s GMF seem like a perfect match. But on the other hand, frequent maritime disputes concerning the fishing rights near the Natuna Islands have posed potentially harmful challenges to Indonesia–China relations in recent years.

Moreover, Indonesia, through its Foreign Ministry KEMLU, has taken a leadership role within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in drafting an ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific concept, which was published in June 2019. The widening of Indonesia’s geostrategic canvas from the Asia–Pacific to the Indo-Pacific is in line with President Jokowi´s intent to make Indonesia a Global Maritime Fulcrum. In view of the rivalry between the US and China and the emergence of various Indo-Pacific initiatives from other countries, Indonesia however believes that ASEAN must try to maintain its centrality.

 

The issue of Indonesia-Chinese civil society relations

Even more significantly, various domestic political and cultural issues hamper the implementation of the BRI in Indonesia, while Indonesia’s GMF is predominantly domestic-focused. Due to historic reasons, Indonesia´s politicians also always have to make sure to not appear too china friendly.

Furthermore, the implementation of both the GMF and BRI are highly top-down, resulting in relatively good government-to-government relations, but lacking in business-to-business and people-to-people development, while the relations also suffer from Suharto regime’s three decade ban of Chinese language and culture in Indonesia.

 

Truly a match made at sea?

In the present analysis Indonesia’s Global Maritime Fulcrum & China’s Belt Road Initiative - a match made at sea?, two Indonesian foreign policy experts, reflect critically on the complementarity of Indonesia’s Global Maritime Fulcrum and China’s Belt Road Initiative.

They doubt, that the GMF and BRI will further Indonesia’s strategic interest in areas besides diplomacy and investment. The various domestic political constraints as well as a seemingly top-down approach with no bottom-up backup in the implementation of both the BRI and GMF, shows relatively weak results in terms of economic cooperation and people-to-people relations.

Most recently, in times of the corona-crisis Chinese foreign policy however announced, that the joint fight against the outbreak would catalyse a “Silk Road of health care”.

 

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Read the full analysis here.

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