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Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies

Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies

AJDSS Volume 2 Number 2

The contending domestic and international imperatives of Indonesia's China challenge

Greta Nabbs-Keller

Published online: 3 December 2020

The article has been peer reviewed.


As Australia’s economic enmeshment with China has constrained Canberra’s foreign policy manoeuvre, so it has been the case for Australia’s neighbours in South-East Asia. A consequential state for Australia and its partners in the Indo-Pacific, Indonesia is economically reliant on China but shares aspects of Australia’s strategic distrust. In contrast with Australia, however, which is just beginning to feel the divisive effects of Beijing’s coercive power in its body politic, the domestic political determinants of Indonesia’s China policy have an unusual salience. Indonesian governments must balance complex domestic political imperatives with international pressures in relations with China; 1 imperatives which lie not only in the material but also in the ideational realm.

This article seeks to highlight the inherent tensions in Indonesia’s contemporary China policy posed by the executive’s requirement to mediate international and domestic political imperatives. Such mediation is difficult for all states to manage in policy terms, but in the case of Indonesia-China relations, the entanglement of domestic politics with foreign policy considerations is especially pronounced. With an analytical focus on presidential executive agency, the article contends that President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo’s prioritisation of economic development goals in Indonesia’s relationship with China, without due regard to negative domestic political sentiment and strategic concerns, has inserted greater volatility into current policy settings. Through rich empirical analysis, the article builds on the extant literature on Indonesia-China relations to explore the interplay between recent economic, strategic and domestic political developments as they relate to Jakarta’s complex and multidimensional relationship with Beijing. 2 The manifestation of institutional and ministerial differences on China within the Indonesian government, the article reveals, can be understood by the absence of a coherent whole-of-government policy approach and a propensity by sections of Indonesia’s politico-military elites to leverage anti-Chinese sentiment for personal political gain. As COVID-19 economic hardship intensifies, domestic political variables represented in hardline Islamic and protectionist sentiment will form a powerful driver of policy change.

The article commences by examining Jokowi’s economic development priorities, which align with Beijing’s geo-economic objectives in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It illustrates how Jokowi’s policy mandate has facilitated increased Chinese aid, trade and investment, increasing the visible manifestations of China’s economic penetration in infrastructure and extractives projects. These developments have alienated domestic constituencies over issues associated with Chinese labour, environmental protection and quality standards and also had the effect of spurring general unease over the nation’s economic dependence on China.

The analysis continues by examining Indonesia’s policy response to Beijing’s increasing maritime assertiveness in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around the Natuna island chain. It contends that Jokowi-led governments have prioritised national economic imperatives over pressing strategic and foreign policy concerns, which has increased national security pressures for Jakarta and diminished its leadership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The third section of the article unpacks the entanglement of domestic politics and foreign policy in the case of Indonesia’s China policy. It explores how negative public sentiment about economic and strategic variables has intersected with shifts in Indonesia’s domestic polity, which has seen the mobilisation of opposition to Jokowi around a multidimensional Chinese threat. The final section of the article considers the economic, strategic and domestic political effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It highlights Indonesia’s receptiveness to China’s generous economic assistance and vaccine diplomacy but argues this has been balanced by ongoing hedging and opportunity gains in Indonesia’s foreign policy response. The article argues that as the effects of the pandemic increase economic hardship in Indonesia, they risk exacerbating existing social cleavages with an attendant rise in anti-Chinese sentiment.

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To cite this article:

Documentary-note:Greta Nabbs-Keller, ‘The contending domestic and international imperatives of Indonesia’s China challenge’, Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies, [online] 2020, 2(2):189-214

Author-date (Harvard): Nabbs-Keller, G., 2020. ‘The contending domestic and international imperatives of Indonesia’s China challenge’, Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies, [online] 2(2), 189-214. Available at: < >

The author would like to acknowledge the contributions of two anonymous reviewers who provided valuable and constructive comment.

1 Theoretical frameworks, which elucidate the influence of domestic political variables on foreign policy, provide a valuable tool for understanding contending policy drivers. Such tools can be found in the scholarship focused on the nexus between international relations and domestic politics, most notably Robert Putnam's 'Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of the Two Level Game' (1988). Putnam's two-level approach recognised that central decision-makers strive to reconcile domestic and international imperatives (the 'intermestic') simultaneously. In this predicament, they face distinctive strategic opportunities and strategic dilemmas. Robert Putnam, 'Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of the Two Level Game', International Organization, 1988, 42(3):427-460.

2 Despite the country's growing economic convergence and expansion in people-to-people exchange, foreign policy scholars noted a 'persistent ambiguity' or 'ambivalence' remained on Indonesia's part. See Rizal Sukma, 'Indonesian Perceptions of China: The Domestic Bases of Persistent Ambiguity', in Herbert Yee and Ian Storey (eds), China Threat: Perceptions, Myths and Reality, Routledge Curzon, London, 2002, pp183-207; Evan Laksmana, 'Dimensions of Ambivalence in Indonesia-China Relations', Harvard Asia Quarterly, 2011, 13(1):24-31; See chapter 9 in Ian Storey, Southeast Asia and the Rise of China: The Search for Security, Routledge, Abingdon, 2013. More recent scholarship identified a more negative shift in Indonesian public perceptions of China, attributed to key developments during Jokowi's presidency. See Siwage Dharma Negara and Leo Suryadinata, 'Indonesia and China's Belt and Road Initiatives: Perspectives, Issues and Prospects', Trends in Southeast Asia, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, 2018 (no.11); Evi Fitriani, 'Indonesian perceptions of the rise of China: dare you, dare you not', The Pacific Review, 2018, 31(3):391-405. , and Dewi Fortuna Anwar, 'Indonesia-China Relations: Coming Full Circle?' in Daljit Singh & Malcolm Cook (eds.), Southeast Asian Affairs, 2019, pp 145-162, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.