China and Indonesia have not always had smooth economic relations. One of the reasons is because there has been a history of hostility towards communism – the ideology adopted by China – in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim majority nation. Communism in Indonesia has been banned since an alleged coup attempt by the country’s Communist Party (PKI) in the late 1960s.
But in recent years, China-Indonesia relations have deepened significantly, with the Chinese-backed Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Railway (HSR) becoming one of the most obvious projects highlighting increased engagement between the two countries.
The ties persist thanks to the roles of certain individuals involved in the administration of Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.
Luhut the central figure
The ongoing HSR mega project is said to have strengthened the Beijing-Jakarta relationship. Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, one of Jokowi’s closest advisors, is considered the central figure, playing a pivotal role in building the bond.
Luhut often explained the reasons why Indonesia needed China, saying that Chinese projects could help Indonesia’s economic growth.
When China claimed the South China Sea (SCS), the territory surrounding Southeast Asian countries such as Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, Luhut said that China had no intention of conflict with Indonesia, and that the issue should not be escalated.
Luhut’s soft attitude towards China and openness to any investment from that country has sparked disappointment from the public.
Luhut has also been a staunch defender of the arrival of Chinese workers in Indonesia, which has been strongly scrutinised by locals.
He repeatedly argued that the number of Chinese workers was very small and they would not take away local employment. Luhut also claimed that Indonesia did not have sufficient qualified engineers to work on such Chinese-led projects.
Luhut’s spokesman, Jodi Mahardi, told The Conversation Indonesia that the diplomatic relations between the two countries had been established since April 13, 1950, and had been getting stronger since President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) – Jokowi’s predecessor – and President Xi Jinping in 2013 signed the “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” agreement.
Jodi said that indeed, Luhut had played vital roles in strengthening the Jakarta-Beijing relationship, but not for a specific necessity related to the HSR project. “The Indonesia-China relation is, in fact, mutually beneficial,” he said.
Besides Luhut, there are two other individuals who bring significant impacts on China-Indonesia relation, particularly through the HSR project: Rini Soemarno, former Minister of State-Owned Enterprises, and Ridwan Kamil, sitting Governor of West Java.
How Rini saved the HSR project
The Jakarta-Bandung HSR, is perceived by some analysts adversely due to fears that China could gain leverage over domestic politics in the country.
Initially, Japan was the first partner candidate for the project, but Jokowi ended up choosing China because the latter pledged to complete the construction during the presidential campaign in 2019, thereby providing a boost to Jokowi’s chances of re-election.
But choosing China as the partner did not come easy. Opposition came from Jokowi’s subordinates and rivals. Ignasius Jonan, then Minister of Transportation, and a military-aligned opposition, repeatedly refused the HSR construction plan due to technical reasons, including the planned routes.
Jonan had also lobbied Japanese firms to help Indonesia modernise its dilapidated public transportation system, to which Tokyo had responded positively.
At a regional level, Aa Umbara Sutisna, then West Bandung Regent who now has been inactivated and convicted of a corruption scandal, also rejected the project, questioning how the HSR will be implemented in his region.
He ended up requesting the constructors, PT. Kereta Cepat Indonesia China (KCIC), build supporting facilities, such as bridges, in exchange for a permit.
The Indonesian military has also emerged as a powerful adversary, maintaining narratives which associated China with the radicaliation of communists in Indonesia throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
Prabowo Subianto, who ran for a presidential seat in 2019, brought up this polemic for his candidacy. The now Minister of Defense under Jokowi, Prabowo criticised Jokowi’s purported involvement of high-profile projects, particularly the Jakarta-Bandung HSR.
In his campaign, Prabowo pledged to undertake a thorough evaluation of those projects, asserting that “we will get a better deal” and that China “must benefit the Indonesian people”, if he was elected president.
Today, the China-Indonesia HSR project still faces various problems, including delays, cost overrun and environmental destructions.
But Rini appeared as Jokowi’s loyal ally, pushing the project forward despite opposition.
According to a research conducted by Guanie Lim, an assistant professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Japan, Rini was said to help woo China to lead the project, ignoring the fact that a Japanese railway consortium had conducted the first feasibility study in 2011 under SBY administration.
The Indonesian Parliament condemned Rini’s zeal, considering her as interfering the Ministry of Transportation’s authority.
China eventually became the lead of the project in 2015, with KCIC as the main firm leading it founded in that year.
Only five days after the ground-breaking ceremony of the Jakarta-Bandung HSR project, Jonan told the public that he had yet to issue a construction permit to the project because it had not fulfilled the required documentation. He also did not release a concession agreement because negotiation with the consortium was still ongoing.
Jonan’s moves allegedly led to his dismissal as a minister in a 2016 cabinet reshuffle.
So is Ridwan Kamil
In the HSR project, Ridwan played his role as the central government’s top representative in West Java province, overcoming the impasses between Jokowi and regional elites, especially the West Bandung Regent, Aa, his subordinate.
As mentioned on Lim’s study, Ridwan’s role was clear in 2019 when the construction of HSR was about to reach West Bandung. He found that Aa refused to issue a construction permit for the KCJB project because the latter considered that the project brought no benefits to the local community.
Ridwan was aware of the devolution of political power and responsibilities to the country’s regencies since the late 1990s, and the ensuing bureaucratic tussle between the regional elites and their national level counterparts.
Aa then demanded a number of extra concessions such as additional bridges to KCIC from the project beyond the initial negotiations between Indonesia and China.
Ridwan’s strategy in persuading Aa to return to the bargaining table actually came as a critic for the latter’s disregard to national interests and as a warning that the central government had the authority to control major national projects.
Despite the criticism and negative headlines about the HSR project, Ridwan remains at the forefront of sharing good tales about it, promising that it would be finished this year.
Stories about Indonesian politicians’ inclination towards China may explain the country’s growing reliance on the latter. While there may be nothing wrong with their efforts to strengthen bilateral ties, attention must be paid to when they prioritise such ties over their country’s sovereignty and the well-being of its citizens.
The Conversation Indonesia has tried to reach Ridwan Kamil and Rini Soemarno, or anyone subjected to represent them, but they either refused or could not be reached for comments.