China and Indonesia: Military-security Ties Fail to Gain Momentum

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 4

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono

From February 18 to 19, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Indonesia as part of an 8-day voyage through Asia. Prior to her trip, Clinton stated that Washington was committed to a stronger relationship with Indonesia, a country she described as “one of Asia’s most dynamic nations” and one that shares democratic values with the United States. A week earlier in Chiang Mai, Thailand, 113 personnel from the Indonesian armed forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia: TNI) participated in Asia’s largest annual multilateral military exercise—Cobra Gold—alongside forces from the United States, Thailand, Japan and Singapore. Though Indonesia’s contribution was small, its participation reflects how quickly U.S.-Indonesian military ties have advanced since they were normalized in 2005. In contrast, Sino-Indonesian military-security ties, which were initiated in the same year, have failed to gain momentum.

China and Indonesia forged a close but brief ideological relationship from 1963 to 1965 when Beijing and Jakarta challenged the international status quo. This relationship was brought to a sudden end in October 1965 when the TNI, led by General (and later President) Suharto, seized power in the wake of an abortive coup carried out by the Indonesian Communist Party. President Suharto blamed Beijing for instigating the coup and proceeded to suspend relations with China in 1967. Twenty-three years later bilateral ties were normalized, but it was not until after the fall of Suharto in 1998 and the withdrawal of the TNI from Indonesian politics that the two countries could turn a new page in their relationship. Increasing trade and investment ties became the focus of Sino-Indonesian relations post-1998, with China showing particular interest in gaining access to Indonesia’s oil and gas reserves.

The Sino-Indonesian Strategic Partnership

In 2004, newly elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono endeavored to craft a more comprehensive relationship with the PRC in recognition of China’s growing centrality in the Asia-Pacific region; economics was still front and center, but the Yudhoyono government sought to expand the political, cultural and military-security aspects of the relationship. The foundation for a broader and deeper relationship was laid in April 2005 when the two countries issued a joint declaration on “Building a Strategic Partnership.” Among 28 key measures to strengthen bilateral ties, the declaration enjoined Indonesia and China to promote greater cooperation in the defense and military spheres, specifically developing each other’s defense industries, establishing a defense consultation mechanism, and increasing cooperation between their law enforcement and intelligent agencies in the fight against transnational security threats [1].

For Indonesia, the most important aspect of the budding military-security relationship with China was defense industry collaboration. Jakarta seeks to develop an advanced domestic arms industry so it can modernize the TNI’s antiquated equipment without having to spend vast amounts of money on foreign weapons systems. Moreover, a more proficient indigenous defense industry would immunize Indonesia against international sanctions. During the 1990s Jakarta learned the painful reality of being overly dependent on one country for its defense needs when the United States, its primary military partner, imposed a series of weapons and training embargoes on Indonesia in response to human rights violations perpetrated by the TNI in East Timor and Papua. Cognizant of this fact, China was keen to position itself as an alternative arms vendor to Indonesia; in 2007, China’s Ambassador to Indonesia, Lan Lijun, declared that Beijing stood ready to supply arms to the TNI “without any political strings” (Jakarta Post, April 19, 2007).

In the aftermath of the “strategic partnership” declaration, the two countries moved to improve defense relations. In July 2005, Indonesia and China signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on defense technology cooperation during Yudhoyono’s visit to Beijing. Indonesian Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono indicated that the MOU would result in future cooperation on the development of short and medium range missiles thus providing the country with a cheaper alternative to jet fighters. During Yudhoyono’s visit, agreement was also reached for Indonesia to purchase YJ-82/C-802 anti-ship missiles (ASMs) for $11 million, the first major purchase of Chinese manufactured weapons by Jakarta since the mid-1960s. There was talk of further arms acquisitions from the PRC, including jet fighters such as the Shenyang J-8.

In accordance with the 2005 declaration, annual Indonesia-China Defense Security Consultation Talks were inaugurated in 2006 to provide a forum to discuss regional and international developments, defense technology cooperation, military educational exchanges, and proposed joint military exercises. In another sign of warming defense ties, in March 2007 two PLA Navy (PLAN) destroyers visited Indonesia, the first such visit in over 12 years. At the second meeting of the Defense Security Consultation Talks a month later, a draft agreement on defense cooperation was signed. This agreement was formalized at a meeting of the two countries’ defense ministers in Beijing in November 2007. Details of that agreement were not made public, but Sudarsono informed the press that it covered defense technology cooperation, exchange of military students, and the possibility of further arms sales to Indonesia.  Sudarsono was quick to point out, however, that the agreement should not be misconstrued as a defense treaty (Antara, November 8, 2007).

Following Sudarsono’s trip to Beijing, Chinese Defense Minister General Cao Gangchuan paid a five-day visit to Jakarta in January 2008. The two sides reportedly agreed to cooperate in the joint production of military transport vehicles and aircraft, to be conducted by the two countries’ state-owned defense industries, with financing to be agreed upon at a later date. Agreement was also reached on setting-up a TNI-PLA cooperation committee with a view to arrange joint military and training exercises (Antara, January 16, 2008).

Lack of Follow Through

Despite the various declarations, MOUs, and joint agreements since 2005, there has been very little follow through in Sino-Indonesian defense and security cooperation. No contractual production agreements have been signed thus far, with Beijing apparently reluctant to invest in Indonesia’s state owned defense industry. No further weapons purchases have taken place since 2005, and in July 2008 Indonesian Navy Chief Admiral Tedjo Edhy Purdijanto announced that the TNI had no further plans to buy Chinese C-802 ASMs (Antara, July 15, 2008).

Sino-Indonesian military exchanges have also been limited. In the period from 2007-2008, China offered 21 kinds of education and training courses for 23 TNI officers (Antara, January 9, 2008). In October 2008 four Indonesian Air Force pilots underwent a week of Sukhoi jet fighter simulation training in China. Unlike Thailand and China, no joint military training or exercises have been conducted by the TNI and PLA (China Brief, July 3, 2008).

Several factors can be advanced to explain the slow pace of development of Sino-Indonesian military-defense ties. First, Indonesia’s initial approach to China regarding enhanced military links took place at a time when the U.S. arms and training embargoes were still in force; Jakarta may have tried to use the “China card” as a means to pressure Washington into expediting the resumption of U.S.-Indonesian military ties. While the possibility of closer defense links between Indonesia and China may well have been a factor in U.S. decision-making to normalize defense ties with Jakarta, it was certainly not a major one and was far outweighed by progress achieved by the Yudhoyono government in reforming the military, as well as Indonesia’s critical role in the fight against transnational terrorist groups in Southeast Asia. It was mainly for these two reasons that by the end of 2005, Washington had lifted nearly all military sanctions against Indonesia.

Second, Chinese weapons systems have a poor reputation in terms of quality, durability, and after-sales service, and Jakarta has thus looked to more reliable defense vendors, Russia being the main beneficiary. In 2003, Indonesia purchased four Sukhoi multirole jet fighters and in late 2006 Moscow agreed to extend Jakarta a $1 billion export credit line for the purchase of further weapons platforms, including six more Sukhoi fighters, M-17 transport helicopters, armored personnel carriers, and two ultra quiet diesel electric Kilo-class submarines, with an option to acquire eight additional submarines by 2020 (Antara, December 3, 2006). Indonesia has since taken delivery of the Sukhoi jets and six helicopters, though the purchase of the submarines seems to have been delayed until after 2010 (Antara, July 28, 2008; Kompas, August 18, 2008). In addition to the Russian kit, Indonesia has also purchased four corvettes from the Netherlands and 17 amphibious tanks from the Ukraine (Antara, July 28, 2008; Kompas, August 18, 2008; Antara, May 9, 2007; Media Indonesia Online, August 26, 2008). Unlike Russia, China has not offered Jakarta credit facilities and Indonesia’s defense expenditure is shrinking. Regarding joint weapons production, Indonesia has kept its options open, and has explored defense industry collaboration with India, Pakistan, Brazil, the Czech Republic and South Korea.

A third possible reason for the lack of progress is lingering distrust within the TNI toward the PLA and China’s long-term intentions in Southeast Asia. Although Indonesia no longer identifies the PRC as a security threat, the military continues to monitor Chinese moves in the South China Sea (where the two countries have overlapping maritime boundary claims near Indonesia’s gas-rich Natuna Islands) and the TNI has called on China to be more transparent about its defense modernization program (Antara, March 12, 2008).

China, Indonesia, and Maritime Security

The 2005 Strategic Partnership declaration also included a commitment to increase maritime security cooperation. By 2005 Chinese strategic analysts had become increasingly concerned at the strategic vulnerability posed by the passage of 70-80 percent of the country’s energy supplies through the Strait of Malacca, a concern which the Chinese official media dubbed China’s “Malacca Dilemma” (China Brief, April 12, 2006). As means to exert greater influence in the management of the Strait, China offered to provide the littoral states—Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore in 2005—with capacity building support to improve safety and security in the strategically vital maritime chokepoint.

Yet similar to Sino-Indonesia military-security defense ties, China has failed to turn rhetoric into action. In 2007 Beijing donated 10 computers to Indonesia’s Maritime Security Coordinating Agency (Bakorkamla) and offered slots to Indonesia navy personnel for training courses in China. Capacity-building assistance from China has, however, been dwarfed by that of the United States and Japan. Since 2006, the United States has provided Indonesia with $47.1 million in funding for the installation of five coastal surveillance radars along the Indonesian side of the Malacca Strait (seven more are sighted in the Makassar Strait and Celebes Sea) [2]. This funding has been made available through the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act, of which Section 1206 is designed to assist foreign countries in their efforts to improve maritime security and counterterrorism operations. The U.S. has also funded the transfer of 30 25-foot patrol boats to the Indonesian marine police, while the U.S. Navy conducts annual capacity building training with its Indonesian counterpart through Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) and Southeast Asia Counterterrorism Training (SEACAT).

Japan has been providing capacity building support to Indonesia since the 1960s, and in 2007 announced a $300 million aid package to Bakorkamla (Antara, September 19, 2007). In the past, most Japanese funding has been utilized to provide safety for navigation equipment in the Strait. In 2006 China announced that it too was willing to provide funding for safety projects in the Strait, including the replacement of navigational aids—mainly lighthouses—destroyed by the December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that when the Indonesian government presented China with a cost estimate to replace those navigational aids, Beijing baulked and has been reluctant to allocate funding ever since.

Over the past decade China’s political and economic gains in Southeast Asia have been undeniable. And while its military-security links with the countries of the region are growing, this aspect of Sino-ASEAN relations remains the least developed, particularly in maritime Southeast Asia. The failure of Sino-Indonesian military-security ties to gain traction since 2005 is a prime example of how much catching up China has to do with Indonesia’s traditional defense partners.

[The author would like to express his thanks to John McBeth for his helpful insights.]


1. Full text of Chinese-Indonesian joint declaration on strategic partnership”, FBIS, April 26, 2005.
2. Nina M. Serafino, “Section 1206 of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2006: A Fact Sheet on Department of Defense Authority to Train and Equip Foreign Military Forces”, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, 15 May 2008,