The Dilemma in Sino-Indonesian Cooperation

The visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Indonesia (12/1/2021) emphasizes the importance of relations between the two countries. Handling the pandemic to cooperation in developing a Covid-19 vaccine has strengthened bilateral relations that have already lasted 70 years. However, optimism for cooperation between the two countries seems still far from being jeopardized in the South China Sea.

The relationship between the two countries does not only take place virtually via video conference or is limited to meetings in various forums. Furthermore, the bilateral relations have yielded concrete results.

Prior to the arrival of the Chinese Foreign Minister, the Covid-19 vaccine from Sinovac had landed in Indonesia, in 3 shipments. Finally, there are 15 million vaccines that have been received by Bio Farma Indonesia. The arrival of the much anticipated vaccine will launch the implementation of Indonesia’s free vaccine policy.

Even the Indonesian government has moved quickly to distribute the vaccine to various regions. The national vaccination program can now be implemented as planned, with President Jokowi as the first to be inoculated with the free vaccine.

Another strategic matter that often goes unnoticed is the collaboration between Bio Farma and Sinovac. It may seem commonplace, but in fact the cooperation between the two pharmaceutical institutions shows concrete results from the health diplomacy of the two countries.

Moreover, the increase in Bio Farma’s capacity is related to Indonesia’s plan to build national health resilience, including through the independence of the drug industry, medicinal raw materials and medical devices. Another optimism for Indonesia is China’s willingness to help build regional vaccine production centers in (Southeast) Asia.

This cooperation is not guaranteed to be obtained by Indonesia from vaccine producers in other countries. This reminds us of the speedy agreement between Indonesia and China in the construction of the Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Train. Measurable speed in bilateral cooperation (at the inter-governmental and inter-agency / SOE levels) to deal with this pandemic is an important consideration for Indonesia in preference to cooperate with China.

However, there is also pessimism. The pessimism of the two countries’ cooperation lies in the SCS issue. In a press statement with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, which was broadcasted virtually after holding a bilateral meeting at the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jakarta (13/1/2021), Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi emphasized, “The importance of maintaining the South China Sea as a sea that is peaceful and stable. And to achieve this, one thing that all countries must do is respect international law including the 1982 UNCLOS. “

Indonesia always implores China for a commitment concluded with other ASEAN countries to fully and effectively implement the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea.

The two countries need to actively and steadfastly promote Code of Conduct (CoC) negotiations in the South China Sea. Not only that: the two countries must also make effective and substantive regional regulations in order to jointly maintain peace and stability in the SCS. Although Indonesia does not dispute the SCS conflict, Indonesia always reminds China of the importance of the CoC and asks China to discuss this at the ASEAN regional negotiating table.

Indonesia sees China’s aggressive stance in SCS waters as a question of whether China’s rise will be peaceful or not. China has always offered various forms of economic cooperation to Indonesia and to various other ASEAN member countries as well. However, China’s expansionist and belligerent stance in the SCS keeps Southeast Asian countries on their toes. This fact tends to produce a dilemma concerning China’s presence in the Asian region.

Although economic cooperation has developed significantly, the proximity of Indonesia-China tends to create complexities for the Indonesian government. In fact, this relationship often backfires for the Jokowi administration because of domestic political sentiment that tends to be negative towards China. Many parties in Indonesia are worried that the economic cooperation will only be used by China to increase its exports to Indonesia. As a result, it is feared that Indonesia’s domestic market will be flooded by more Chinese products than vice versa.

Foreign Minister Retno’s statement actually shows that bilateral relations pose a dilemma for Indonesia, especially the Jokowi administration. For Indonesia, China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea is considered to be one of the reasons Jokowi is reluctant to appear too close to President Xi Jinping’s administration. The consistency of China’s aggressive stance in the SCS and Indonesia’s position as a non-claimant state in the SCS has made the SCS issue a separate challenge for the cooperation between the two countries.

These real challenges do not seem to interfere with the increased cooperation between the two countries in handling the Covid-19 pandemic until now. Bilateral issues in one sector do not necessarily end bilateral relations as a whole, including between Indonesia and China, which have just celebrated their 70th anniversary.

Raihan Ronodipuro
Raihan Ronodipuro
Raihan Ronodipuro holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the prestigious School of Public Policy & Management at Tsinghua University, China. His academic journey was propelled by the esteemed Chinese MOFCOM Scholarship, leading him to successfully attain a Master of Law in International Relations from the School of International and Public Affairs at Jilin University, China. With a rich background, Raihan has also contributed as an Associate Researcher in the Department of Politics and Security at the Center for Indonesia-China Studies (CICS). Currently, he plays a pivotal role as a member of the International Relations Commission within the Directorate of Research and Studies for the Overseas Indonesian Students' Association Alliance (OISAA) for the term 2022/2023.