The Indonesian government’s meetings with China underscore a pragmatic approach to relations, where economics and investment is paramount. Missing in the broader dialogue are values, many of which are derided in Beijing.
In September, Indonesian Vice President Ma’ruf Amin met with Chinese Premiere Li Qiang to discuss ways to strengthen bilateral ties between their countries. The occasion represents one of the many diplomatic visits carried out by Indonesia and China this year. Amin’s visit took place only two months after President Joko Widodo’s travelled to Chengdu and other diplomatic meetings between the two countries.
During their meeting, Amin thanked China for its support for Indonesia’s 2023 ASEAN chairmanship while also expressing appreciation for the overall growing relationship between China and Indonesia. He also met with the Mayor of Shanghai, Gong Zheng, and emphasised the strategic role of Shanghai as a trade gateway and bilateral commercial centre between Indonesia and China.
While the visit embodied the pragmatic nature of China-Indonesia relations in recent years, the two, much like Jokowi’s visit to Chengdu in July, avoided crucial issues that need to be discussed. For instance, while Amin highlighted the importance of increasing investment from both parties, he did not discuss the hanging concerns surrounding Chinese investments in Indonesia, including cost-overruns, environmental degradation, and labour issues. Instead, he just reaffirmed the Indonesian government’s commitment to facilitate Chinese investors to enter the country.
Moreover, while he also invited several Chinese companies focusing on solar power to support energy transition in Indonesia, Amin also avoided discussing the fact that the majority of Chinese investments still concentrate on the dirty energy sector, and ignore environmental standards.
One of the more interesting outcomes of the bilateral meeting has been the potential cooperation on halal issues. Amin invited Shanghai business actors to take advantage of the huge potential of the halal industry in Indonesia, valued at US$135 billion. The same discussion was also had by Amin in meetings with Secretary of the CPC Fujian Provincial Committee of the Fujian Provincial People’s Congress, Zhou Zuyi, and the Representative Office of Food Research Institute, medicines, and cosmetics (LPPOM) of Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) in Shanghai and Al Amin Co. Ltd, one of the Chinese firms specialising in Halal products. During these visits, Amin met with several Fujian entrepreneurs engaged in the halal food sector, across seafood, beverages, and frozen food supply.
It should be noted that Amin did not mention the Xinjiang issue, which has been in the international news for the last few years, including in Indonesia. As a senior figure from the largest Muslim organisation, Nadhlatul Ulama, as well as a high-ranking government official, Amin should have brought up the Uighur issue during his visit as a form of Indonesia’s solidarity with fellow Muslims. It should be noted that, while Indonesia has been very active in supporting the Palestinian issue, it has been relatively silent in the case of Xinjiang. The cause, undoubtedly, is due to the nation’s high economic reliance on China.
As a matter of fact, in his interviews with several Chinese media, and his meetings with Indonesian students in China, Amin has said that Islam in China is developing. It was reported that he was invited to visit several Muslim communities in China, where he claimed that living as a Muslim would not be an issue, referring, for instance, to a packed Mosque in Pudong during the Friday prayer.
Whether Amin’s silence on the Uighur issue is because he does not know the condition of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang or because he is reluctant to speak out about conditions in the North Western region due to the close relationship between Indonesia and China, is unclear.
Beyond the halal and religious sector, Indonesia and China have also agreed to explore several tourism and educational programs. Amin has encouraged educational cooperation, especially in the vocational sector, to advance human resources to support Chinese investment in the country. On this point, Amin also failed to discuss the current conditions of Chinese and Indonesian workers on Chinese projects in Indonesia who often live in poor conditions, as according to several reports.
Overall, the visit of Amin to China in September is part of a stream of more frequent meetings carried out by the Indonesian government and China this year. These visits certainly indicate that Indonesia is looking to become more economically linked with China. At the same time, it is crucial for the Indonesian government to balance the frequency of visits to its partner countries and avoid economic dependencies on any one nation.
Equally important, Indonesian diplomats need to obtain a thorough perspective prior to deciding on the content of their travels. Beyond practical goals like attracting foreign investment or voicing certain issues, it must prioritise preserving Indonesia’s long-term competitiveness and independence in the present-day geopolitical landscape.
Dr Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a researcher at the Center of Economic and Law Studies, Jakarta. His research focuses on China-Indonesia-Middle East relations. Yeta Purnama is a researcher at the Center of Economic and Law Studies.
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