President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo can easily ease the tension between Indonesia and China over the two countries’ overlapping claims to the waters north of Natuna. He only needs to phone Chinese President Xi Jinping to wish him well on the upcoming Chinese New Year.
The two have met at least eight times as presidents so far and appear to have built a strong personal bond. As a Muslim, Jokowi should not worry about the possibility of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) prohibiting Muslims from conveying a Chinese New Year greeting; the MUI is only concerned about Christmas greetings.
The timing is also perfect as this year the two countries will celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations. The opportunity beckons for President Jokowi to raise the Natuna issue directly with his counterpart.
I suggest that President Jokowi begin the conversation with a light, personal matter, such as his Chinese zodiac, which is the ox. President Xi’s is the snake.
“Gong xi fa cai Mr. President. We all believe China will continue to prosper under your leadership. China is now the locomotive of the world’s economy, no longer the United States,” Jokowi might say in opening his telephone conversation.
The warm relationship between Indonesia and China received a boost when Jokowi announced 30 projects worth US$91.1 billion under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) program last year.
A recent study by United States-based think tank Pew Research Center, however, discovered that Indonesians are wary of China’s growing influence, although they welcome its economic growth as a positive trend.
To settle the issue beyond doubt, Jokowi should openly raise the Natuna issue. As appeared on The Jakarta Post front page on Monday, a China Coast Guard vessel attempted to intercept Indonesian warship KRI Usman Harun during its routine patrol against foreign trawlers in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), north of Natuna.
“President Xi, in Indonesia this issue is very sensitive, because it concerns sovereignty. I just don’t want this problem to sour the happy celebration of our bilateral relations,” Jokowi could tell Xi.
I believe such a personal approach would be effective and the Chinese leader would instruct the country’s coast guard and other elements of the state to stop flexing their muscles in the face of Indonesia. A confrontation with Indonesia will only backfire, as other ASEAN member states will act in a show of solidarity.
The tension seemed to have died down. Just one day before Jokowi visited Natuna to assert Indonesia’s sovereign rights in its EEZ off Natuna last week, Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang issued a cool response to the measures taken by Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) against Chinese fishermen, who have often been backed by the Chinese coast guard. Geng underlined the importance of bilateral ties.
“China always views the bilateral relationship with Indonesia from a strategic and long-term perspective. We believe Indonesia will also bear in mind the bigger picture of bilateral relations and regional stability, properly resolve differences with China and foster a favorable atmosphere and conditions for celebrating the 70th anniversary of our diplomatic ties,” he said.
Last December Geng said China did not care about Indonesia’s EEZ as China claimed the waters as its traditional fishing grounds.
Indonesia froze its relations with China following the aborted coup attempt blamed on the now-defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965, which Jakarta accused of being linked to Beijing. The ties were restored in 1990, after then-Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen met with then- president Soeharto during the funeral of Japanese emperor Hirohito in 1989.
Both nations then discussed in detail the requirements from both sides to reopen relations. On China’s part, it was mostly unconditional, including with regard to Indonesia’s sovereignty.
“We do not need to exaggerate the current bilateral problem,” said a senior observer who follows the bilateral relations from the Chinese and Indonesian sides.
Diplomatic sources in Jakarta recalled that the tough “shooting and sinking” policy of Jokowi’s first maritime affairs and fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti against hundreds of foreign boats around Natuna had restrained Chinese vessels from fishing in the waters.
Susi’s successor Edhy Prabowo, however, pledged to shelve the bold policy. Edhy, who accompanied Jokowi on the visit to Natuna, appeared to swallow his own words when he vowed to punish the foreign poachers.
For better or worse, Indonesia and China have to solve the dispute once and for all, or else it will become a pebble in the shoe as the late former Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas put it.
The two countries will mark 70 years of their relationship (actually 45 years because of the 25-year hiatus), which has become more intimate over the last five years. As true friends, they should be able to put differences behind much broader common interests.
Not only has destiny dictated that Jokowi and Xi know each other, but as persons they are compatible, at least according to the Chinese horoscope. The ox and snake work pretty well together due to their common interests.
Jokowi’s “Gong xi fa cai” to Xi would hopefully mark an ideal impetus to partnership between the two countries in this Year of the Rat for the sake of the well-being of their peoples.