Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited five countries in the Indo-Pacific region — India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Indonesia, and Vietnam — from 25 to 30 October 2020. Following these visits, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited four Southeast Asian countries — Myanmar, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines — from 11 to 16 January 2021. Indonesia was on the visit itinerary of both politicians in their mission to pursue their national interests.
Prior to Pompeo’s Indonesia visit, it was reported that Indonesia had rejected Washington’s request to land and refuel its P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance planes there. This is because Indonesia still upholds the principle of a “free and independent” foreign policy until today and is unwilling to form alliances with any major power.
During his visit to Indonesia, Pompeo again mentioned the South China Sea dispute and China’s “unlawful claims”, praising Indonesia for its “courageous leadership on the subject” and “decisive action to safeguard its maritime sovereignty around the Natuna Islands”. He reiterated that the seas north of the Natuna Islands are in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and that China should not have a claim over it.
He (Pompeo) even alleged that the Chinese Communist Party forced “Uighur Muslims to eat pork” and called on Indonesian Muslims to condemn China.
On the other hand, Indonesia Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi reiterated that the “South China Sea should be maintained as a stable and peaceful sea”. She only mentioned that the “UNCLOS 1982, must be respected and implemented” by all countries and made no mention of China.
During his visit, Pompeo also addressed GP Ansor, the youth wing of Indonesia’s largest and most influential Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). He criticised China for not having religious freedom and for oppressing followers of Islam in every way possible. He claimed that China was oppressing the Uighurs in Xinjiang, putting them in concentration camps, and depriving them of their freedom. He even alleged that the Chinese Communist Party forced “Uighur Muslims to eat pork” and called on Indonesian Muslims to condemn China.
The GP Ansor audience did not take a stance on Pompeo’s speech. General Chairman of GP Ansor Yaqut Cholil Qoumas said later that given the current state of China-US relations, it was inevitable that China and the US would attack each other. In lieu of reliable information regarding alleged violent acts against Muslims in Xinjiang, he felt the US’s claims were one-sided and more evidence was needed to justify those claims. Similarly, General Secretary of NU Yahya Cholil Staquf was quoted by Antara as saying, “We need more information to apprehend the real situation. However, if there is proven to be a violation of human rights [in Xinjiang], we will not remain silent.”
... the NU leaders disapproved of the Uighurs’ radical methods and goals, and after the visit they stated that there was no need for Indonesia to raise further concerns about the Uighurs.
It turns out that earlier in February 2019, the Chinese government had already invited 15 representatives from the NU, Muhammadiyah, and Majelis Ulama Indonesia to visit Xinjiang on a government-organised tour, where they were given limited access to where the Uighurs lived in Xinjiang. However, news reports at the time claimed that the NU leaders disapproved of the Uighurs’ radical methods and goals, and after the visit they stated that there was no need for Indonesia to raise further concern about the Uighurs.
Military cooperation between Indonesia and the US
The most important purpose of Pompeo’s Indonesia visit was to propagate Trump’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) strategy, under which it sees Indonesia having a pivotal role in Southeast Asia. However, Beijing interprets this concept as a strategy to contain China. As Indonesia is unwilling to form alliances with any major power, it is not interested in the FOIP strategy.
Actually, Indonesia has already proposed an “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” via ASEAN with the aim to promote “cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region”, including participation from China, which does not belong to the Indo-Pacific.
While Indonesia is unwilling to participate in a US-led strategy, Jakarta and Washington are cooperating on the security front. During Pompeo’s visit to Indonesia, Marsudi said during a joint press briefing with Pompeo that both countries had reached a consensus on security cooperation when Indonesia Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto visited the US from 15 to 19 October last year.
Without going into the specifics, she noted that both countries agreed to enhance defence cooperation, namely by "strengthening defence capabilities and military procurement to achieve Minimum Essential Force (MEF), training and exercises, intelligence sharing, and maritime security cooperation in the region”.
However, Indonesia is still most concerned about economic cooperation. During Pompeo’s visit, Indonesia asked the US to renew the country’s Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) facility which grants it preferential trade terms. At that time, Pompeo did not agree to it. However, shortly after he returned to the US, Indonesia received news that Trump has agreed to extend its GSP status.
Upon hearing the news, Indonesia Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan visited Washington on 16 November 2020 to personally thank Trump for his continued support towards Indonesia. The US presidential election was over by then, and Joe Biden had become President-elect, but Trump had not conceded. Trump was still making his final efforts in demonstrating his presidential power.
Wang focused on bilateral cooperation in areas such as the Covid-19 vaccine and Chinese investments in Indonesia and economic cooperation between the two countries.
Then-Vice President Mike Pence even had a separate meeting with Luhut, where the former offered “joint production of a vaccine against coronavirus between pharmaceutical companies from two countries.”
Sino-Indonesian ‘brotherly relations’
On the other hand, Wang’s Indonesia visit in January this year can be said to be a counterattack on the US’s efforts to win Indonesia over. Unlike Pompeo’s Indonesia visit, Wang focused on bilateral cooperation in areas such as the Covid-19 vaccine and Chinese investments in Indonesia and economic cooperation between the two countries. Wang also timed his visit to coincide with Indonesia President Joko Widodo taking the China-made Sinovac vaccine, thereby demonstrating the latter’s confidence in the vaccine.
Wang said that China was “willing to further vaccine cooperation with Indonesia to jointly promote the accessibility and affordability of Covid-19 vaccines” and help Indonesia fight against the pandemic.
Actually, Wang had met Luhut in Yunnan a few months prior to this visit in which he indicated China’s interest in helping Indonesia become the centre for vaccine production in Southeast Asia. During the 12 January meeting, Luhut received Wang in his hometown near Lake Toba, and hoped that China would invest there too. Luhut referred to Wang as his friend and the pair had even hiked together. Wang Yi also described Sino-Indonesian relations as “brotherly relations”, indicating that Indonesia is very close to China.
Wang also met Marsudi and discussed numerous bilateral issues, including Indonesian seamen working on Chinese fishing boats. According to Indonesian sources, the working conditions of these seamen are very harsh. They work long hours, have insufficient rest and food, and are often bullied and beaten up by Chinese seamen. In fact, four Indonesian seamen working on Chinese fishing vessels died in March 2020. The Indonesian Foreign Ministry is currently undergoing talks with China, and some progress has been made on the matter.
Following the Wang-Marsudi meeting, a joint press briefing was held in which Wang expressed that China and Indonesia have forged closer economic cooperation and “will work together to win this long battle against Covid”. He also said that China supported “Indonesia's efforts to become a regional centre for vaccine production”. On her part, Marsudi expressed her hope that Indonesia and China would continue their good cooperation, and urged China to remove trade barriers and allow more Indonesian products into the Chinese market so as to reduce the trade deficit between both countries. Wang replied positively, saying that China hoped to increase imports from Indonesia to enhance economic cooperation between both countries.
Perhaps Wang is telling the US this: China has close partnerships with Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia and that it would be difficult for the US to isolate China from Southeast Asian countries.
In addition, Marsudi thanked Wang’s cooperation on the Indonesian seamen issue and asked for continued assistance on the repatriation of stranded seamen, settlement of workers’ rights and better law enforcement to improve the lives of Indonesian seamen on Chinese boats.
The timing of Wang’s four-nation mission gives one much to think about. It happened right before Biden was officially sworn in as the 46th US president. Perhaps Wang is telling the US this: China has close partnerships with Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia and that it would be difficult for the US to isolate China from Southeast Asian countries.
Pompeo’s visit to Indonesia was aimed at winning over Indonesia to isolate China, while Wang’s visit to Indonesia sought to reduce the US’s influence on Indonesia. But Indonesia has remained neutral amid China-US competition and used that to gain economic benefits from the situation. On the economic front, Indonesia has a closer relationship with China. But on the security front, Indonesia is closer to the US in light of the South China Sea issue amid Chinese assertiveness. In this regard, Indonesia’s military and security cooperation with the US has given one an inkling of the situation.
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