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Indonesia’s Position in the US-China Rivalry – OpEd – Eurasia Review



Indonesia is a growing economy in Southeast Asia, with a gross domestic product of over US$1 trillion. The country’s size and location have made Indonesia an attractive strategic ally for China and the United States to coax the ASEAN region. Indonesia has tried hard to remain unaligned in the Sino-American rivalry, but if the simmering hostility between the two resumes, will Indonesia be forced to take sides or adopt a foreign policy that does not aligns with either of the two superpowers? For Indonesia, ties with rival superpowers like China and the United States have always been a balancing act. Indonesia has been committed to free and active diplomacy since its independence in 1945, a strategy that quickly saw the nation reap the benefits of having millions of acquaintances and zero enemies. But as deteriorating US-China relations begin to polarize the region again into rival alliances, can Indonesia maintain this balance?

A “free and active” foreign policy:

Remains With 278 million people, Indonesia has long been a powerhouse in Southeast Asia. It is the only state in the region within the G20 and is a founding member of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Additionally, Indonesian leaders often see their role as a neutral third party in global affairs who can serve as a bridge between rival countries in times of crisis. A few months ago, Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited Ukraine and Russia, which is the latest sign of this approach. Indonesia has also offered to help reconcile the West and Iran over its nuclear program and to maintain diplomatic relations with North Korea and South Korea. Its relationship with China and the United States is a similar balancing act. To see it, just look at two places, Bandung and Batam.

Infrastructure and Defense:

China subsidized approximately US$7.9 billion in Indonesian infrastructure projects under its enterprising Belt and Road Initiative. For example, China has helped Indonesia cultivate a high-speed rail line converging Indonesia’s capital Jakarta with the country’s fourth largest city, Bandung. The high-speed rail line was supposed to be put into operation in 2019. Instead, in 2022, there are three years after the due date and at least one year after completion. Once a virtuous sign of China’s ability to beat regional rivals like Japan in high-speed rail projects, the Jakarta-Bandung rail line has become a symbol of Indonesia’s concern over investment Chinese. Some Indonesian scholars of politics and international relations have shown great apprehension that Indonesia will plunge into The Chinese debt trap. They exclaimed that if we took a lot of loans from China, many Chinese workers would enter Indonesia. This is what makes people doubtful. Furthermore, they say we could become like Sri Lanka, which is often cited by the international community as being caught in China’s debt trap. Yet China far exceeds the United States when it comes to investing in Indonesia. China is the third largest investor, with about US$24.5 billion invested since 2000. On the other hand, the United States has funded some US$20 billion during the same period. But while China has focused on economic acquisition to curry favor, the United States has taken a different approach: increasing defense links.

Indonesia hosted U.S. military officials for joint exercises and exhibits that showcased the nation’s armed forces. In addition, the two countries have traditionally cooperated in counterterrorism efforts. But in recent years, that partnership has shifted to a new front: the South China Sea. The United States is spending some $3.5 million on a training center and naval base in Batam, an Indonesian island on the outskirts of the South China Sea and right in the middle of vital shipping lanes. However, the biggest danger to Indonesia in the South China Sea is China itself, which is embroiled in maritime disputes around Indonesia’s Natuna Islands.

Is a span too far?

So far, Indonesia has remained neutral despite the intensification of the American-Chinese rivalry. Indonesia has tried unsuccessfully to bring the two sides closer together in the past, including during the 2018 APEC meeting in Papua New Guinea. Chinese President Xi Jinping, at an APEC meeting, said the United States should reject attempts to form exclusive blocs or impose its will on others. At the same time, the US Vice President explained that China had taken advantage of the United States for many years and that those days were over. The meeting concluded with member economies dissenting on a final statement, a first for APEC.

Since then, the relationship has only grown tense. A recent survey conducted in 2022 found that 82% of Americans held a hostile view of China, a six-point increase from polling data from previous years. Several surveys in China show a similar level of skepticism. For example, 64% of Chinese said US-China relations are deteriorating every day. In Indonesia, 60% said Indonesia should join efforts to limit China’s influence in Asia. But if a war between China and the United States were to break out, a staggering 84% say Indonesia should remain neutral. So what does all this mean?

Suppose the tension between the United States and China increases and Indonesia has to take sides. In this case, many assume that Indonesia will prefer the United States because the United States has always been less of a threat than China. However, this also means that it takes more than economic investment, albeit significant, to tip the scales in favor of China. Undoubtedly, China has made a lot of financial assets in Indonesia, so if China wants to balance against the United States, it cannot just focus on the economy. Of course, the economy is essential, but it must also look much further. He needs to stop focusing only on Beijing’s interests, but he also needs to look at what Jakarta wants.


Yet Washington’s bellicose posturing and new push for security and trade blocs like VICTIM and QAUD are poorly received in Jakarta. Unless things change, Indonesia seems to persist in following the middle path, “friends of all, enemies of no one, and a bridge between rivals whenever possible”.

Taha Amir is an undergraduate student in Defense and Strategic Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. Currently, he is an intern at Consul Monthly Magazine. Additionally, he has also published articles for the London Institute of Peace and Research. ( He recently completed his internship at ISPR (Interservice public relations) Pakistan Army Media wing




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