Posted by: mel | April 16, 2009

China’s Strategic Ties with Indonesia

 

Hong Kong, China — China’s success in establishing a “strategic partnership” with Southeast Asian countries has relied heavily on its effective diplomacy with Indonesia, which it has pursued diligently in recent years.

Indonesia had a strong anti-China policy in the 1960s, due to China’s backing of the Communist Party of Indonesia against the government. The two countries had no diplomatic relations from 1967 till 1990. Now, however, Indonesia has close military, political and diplomatic ties with China.

China’s rationale in pursuing this relationship is straightforward: Indonesia is the largest country in Southeast Asia and has a population of over 240 million. Aside from its natural gas and oil reserves, diplomatically, winning over Indonesia was the key to engaging other nations in the region.

In terms of military equipment and technology, Indonesia has become the third largest client of China-made C-802 surface-to-surface missiles and QW-1 surface-to-air missiles in Southeast Asia, after Thailand and Myanmar. The Indonesian air force was the first among ASEAN armed forces to purchase China’s QW-3 surface-to-air missiles.

The political and military rapprochement of China and Indonesia was aided by the fact that the United States restricted arms sales to Indonesia throughout the 1990s over human rights concerns. This became a full U.S. arms embargo from 1999 to 2006, in response to Indonesian actions in East Timor.

Indonesia therefore looked to China for military hardware. At present, although the U.S. arms embargo has been lifted, Indonesia is still wary of the United States. Thus the Indonesian air force has turned to Russia and China for equipment procurement.

In an exclusive interview, a senior Indonesian air force official confided that the force had no plans to upgrade its aging U.S.-made F-16A/B fighters, which are currently in service, despite U.S. reports that it would do so.

Unlike the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, Indonesia has no territorial disputes with China over islands in the South China Sea. There has never been any open argument between the two countries over sovereignty.

In recent years, China has taken a number of steps to build trust with Indonesia through high-level political visits between the two countries. Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Indonesia in 2005; it was during that visit that the two countries declared the establishment of a “strategic partnership.”

Since then there have been frequent military contacts between the two sides. In 2006, Zhang Yunshen, assistant to the chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, visited Indonesia. In 2007, a Chinese naval delegation and battleship formation paid a visit.

Chinese Defense Minister General Cao Gangchuan twice visited the country, in January 2007 and January 2008. During the second visit, the two sides signed a defense cooperation agreement. Following this agreement, China exported to Indonesia a second batch of C-802 SSMs and QW-3 surface-to-air missiles.

On the other hand, the Indonesian defense minister visited China in November 2007. These exchanges of top military officials evidence the steady escalation of military cooperation between the two countries.

Other high-level diplomatic visits were also exchanged. The Indonesian vice president visited China in June 2007, and in July of the same year, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi paid a return visit to Indonesia.

As a political favor to China, on March 12, 2008, Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda was the first among the ASEAN countries to object overtly to Taiwan’s bid for U.N. membership. The foreign ministers of other ASEAN countries then followed suit.

Last November China sent Zhou Yongkang, a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo, to visit Indonesia to further strengthen the relationship.

Indonesia is the richest in natural resources among the ASEAN nations, and China has been keen to develop economic cooperation in parallel with its strategic ties. China’s key imports from Indonesia currently include crude oil, petroleum refined from tar, petroleum by-products, natural gas, coal and rubber.

Sino-Indonesian trade was valued at US$28 billion last year. During a visit to Beijing by Indonesian Economy Minister Sri Muyani Indrawati last month, the two sides set a goal of US$30 billion for 2010.

Starting this year, Indonesia will supply China’s southern coastal province of Fujian with 2.6 million cubic meters of natural gas every year; the contract is valid for 25 years.

China is particularly interested in Indonesia’s rich crude oil resources. In 2007 Sinopec, China’s top oil and gas company, announced it would invest US$14 billion in Indonesia to develop crude oil and natural gas resources. China also plans to invest in developing Indonesia’s coalmines.

It is not clear how Indonesia has paid for the Chinese weapons it has acquired so far, but the country’s practice in recent years in procuring weapons from Poland, Russia and South Korea indicates that many of its deals have been negotiated through barter trade.

It is safe to say that China’s efforts to strengthen military cooperation with Indonesia, as elsewhere around the world, are largely aimed at implementing its national energy security strategy.

In addition to Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei have all been targeted by China for weapons deals in exchange for oil. Increasingly, wherever there is oil, China-made weapons can be found.

With the exception of Vietnam, which has a long-standing mistrust of China, more China-made weapons can be expected to appear throughout Southeast Asia in the years to come.

(Andrei Chang is editor-in-chief of Kanwa Defense Review Monthly, registered in Toronto, Canada.)

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