Diplomacy’s pointy end. Chinese vaccines in Indonesia.

18/01/2021

The choreography was about reassurance. A well-masked Indonesian President Joko Widodo sitting before a large red sign saying AMAN dan HALAL – meaning safe and approved for Muslims. Alongside stood Palace doctor Professor Abdul Muthalib ready to show 270 million citizens that the Chinese Covid-19 vaccine Sinovac was OK.

He almost blew it. What the telecast showed is that applicants for the shot should be more concerned about the person thrusting the needle than the contents of the syringe. The nervous doc’s shaking hands almost missed the slim president’s upper arm, doing nothing to instil public confidence.

Nor did the outburst of doubts in rumour-rich Indonesia: Was it really Sinovac, or just sterile water? Was there a Bill Clinton / George Soros microdot in the solution so Widodo will invite Benjamin Netanyahu to make a goodwill visit? Will the president turn into a godless Communist?

That last question is as ridiculous as the others, but it resonates with the paranoiacs as the world’s largest nation smooches the fourth.

As Widodo was rolling up his sleeve to start the rollout of 125 million Sinovac jabs across the archipelago, Foreign Minister Dr Wang Yi was bumping elbows in Jakarta. This was no coincidence.

While the US was tearing itself asunder and focussing on itself, China’s top diplomat, untroubled by the agonies of democracy, was doing a spot of sweet talk.

In his travelling salesman’s satchel was a bundle of communication and security goodies, along with balm for a nation which is handling the plague badly.

The Johns Hopkins University pandemic tracking service reports Indonesia has almost 900,000 cases and more than 25,000 deaths – the highest toll in Southeast Asia. Domestic and foreign epidemiologists claim the figure is much higher as testing is expensive, tracing haphazard and autopsies are few. These factors make the published stats suspect.

Yi’s two-day visit included talks on making Indonesia a regional hub for vaccine production through its four state-owned pharmaceutical companies, helping build a 5G network and develop an ASEAN-China maritime code of conduct.

This is rich coming from a country which has been the aggressor, sending fishing fleets backed by armed coastguards into South China Sea waters close to Indonesian islands. A year ago Jakarta claimed Chinese ships were setting nets and lines inside its exclusive economic zone.

Warships weighed anchor and F-16 fighters screamed down runways. Widodo was snapped looking tough on a heaving deck alongside a battery of missiles, his expression reflecting the dilemma of all leaders who confront a problem with weapons: If we fire will they retaliate? And then what happens?

Though the image may have comforted nationalists the reality is less reassuring. For all its size and chest-beating, Indonesia is poorly armed and without a big brother can only bluster. (The Finance Ministry says its 2021 defence budget is AUD 11.9 billion. Australia’s is AUD 42.7 billion.)

Since 1948 the nation’s non-alignment policy has been mendayung antara dua karang, or rowing between two reefs. Less poetically it means the Constitution forbids signing pacts with other powers, leaving it bobbing oarless between China and the US.

In a media conference with Indonesian FM Retno Marsudi, Yi spruiked ‘solidarity’:’ We’ll work together to synergise the Belt and Road initiatives and Indonesia’s global maritime fulcrum.’

Not on the public table but a backroom worry is how to service Indonesia’s AUD 23 billion debt, largely incurred through loans for the infrastructure projects that Widodo has been bulldozing for the past six years.

Some fear China is setting a debt trap by extending credit to wring economic or political concessions from the debtor.

International affairs expert Dr Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat from the Islamic University has warned his homeland ‘to avoid the experience of Sri Lanka, which lost the majority of its control over a port in Colombo to China due to debt defaults.

‘… Indonesia’s relationship with China has prevented Jakarta from acting aggressively in the South China Sea unless it is prepared to lose its largest trading partner and one of its largest investors,’ he wrote in The Conversation.

‘This growing dependence has also heightened anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia, which has been deeply rooted in Indonesia since the 19th century.’

Despite the growing closeness, China has many hills to climb before it can see improved relations. Apart from their hatred of Communism, Indonesians are also concerned about the plight of Muslim Uyghurs in the Xinjiang ‘re-education’ camps.

They’ve been told these are to turn people from terrorism and not neuter religious beliefs. As Indonesia also has problems with Islamic extremists this explanation has mollified a few critics, though not the more perceptive commentators.

Yi and other senior diplomats have been frequent visitors despite the coronavirus, a fact not lost on their Jakarta counterparts. Indonesian culture prioritises face-to-face negotiations above document exchanges.

Also obvious is the absence of Australian ministers. Ambassador Gary Quinlan went back to Canberra along with other senior staff when the pandemic broke, leaving our largest Embassy in the world understaffed and flashing an embarrassing signal: We’re the nation next door but not well engaged.

That’s left a space China’s been happy to fill.

Australian journalist Duncan Graham writes from Indonesia.

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