Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 20

By Kenneth Conboy

The relationship between the Republic of Indonesia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has seen some of the best of times and worst of times. During much of the rule of President Sukarno prior to 1965, China was one of Indonesia’s most important allies. Though ostensibly non-aligned, Sukarno received critical diplomatic support from Beijing–and returned the sentiment in kind. Beijing was also the primary patron of the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, or PKI), which at the time was the second largest communist party in Asia.

The relationship between Sukarno and the PKI was complex. Sukarno was socialist in his rhetoric, though it was widely believed that he was more of an opportunist than a committed leftist. But he came to lean increasingly on the PKI for political backing; in turn, that party grew into the most powerful political organization in the country and the only one with a nationwide grassroots following.

Offsetting its influence were the Indonesian armed forces. Though many painted the Indonesian military at the time as staunchly anti-communist, it was in the main politically neutral and staunchly nationalistic. Most senior army officers were probably not predisposed against socialist economic models, even though the Indonesian economy was suffering greatly under this system.

The military did strongly oppose the PKI, though not on ideological grounds. Instead, because the PKI was the only organization in the nation that could seriously challenge the army’s influence. And because Beijing backed the PKI, by association the army also looked on China with suspicion. This was exacerbated in mid-1965, when PKI leaders advanced a plan to form a “fifth column” militia under its control armed by China. The militia would theoretically be used against Malaysia (Indonesia was fighting a border war with Malaysia at the time), though the army saw the move as little more than an ill-disguised means of usurping their power.

In late September 1965, the conflict between both these sides came to a head. Though the circumstances are still mysterious, senior members of the PKI, along with a handful of sympathetic military officers, attempted to seize control of Jakarta after kidnapping and killing half a dozen generals. A few hundred PKI militiamen, who had been armed with an initial shipment of Chinese carbines, were used in the operation. Sukarno, who was generally aware of the plan before it was launched, was ushered into the rebel headquarters for the first critical hours.

As it turned out, the putsch never gained momentum. While Sukarno sat on a fence, the armed forces, infuriated that the PKI had drawn first blood, mustered forces in the capital and swept it of leftists in a day. Not stopping there, the army spread across the Indonesian countryside and eradicated the PKI in bloody fashion.

Though it was more than a year before Sukarno was officially removed from power, the army–in particular, General Suharto–became the de facto ruler of the nation for the next three decades. Almost immediately, Suharto began to repair ties with the West. Conversely, the relationship between Indonesia and the PRC went into freefall. Infuriated by Beijing’s links to the PKI, anti-Chinese sentiment came to cloud Jakarta’s diplomatic dealings in the region. Indonesia saw the PRC as a long-term security challenge to their nation. In a telling move, the Indonesian special forces in the early 1970s began giving select officers Mandarin-language training so they could operate behind enemy lines in the event China overran Southeast Asia.

The Chinese threat was seen in another area as well. In early 1975, Portugal was preparing to leave its colonial foothold in Timor, located in the midst of the Indonesian archipelago. One of the three Timorese parties vying for control was the left-leaning Fretilin, which had several of its senior members openly embracing Maoist precepts.

Noting this, Indonesia saw opportunity. Playing the anti-communist card, Jakarta began to claim that Chinese military advisors had arrived in Timor to work with Fretilin. This charge was baseless: When Indonesian troops launched a conventional invasion of Timor that December, they found no evidence of Chinese instructors.

Still, Indonesia maintained its grudge against China. During the 1980s, this was manifest in an extremely Machiavellian manner. Vietnam had invaded neighboring Cambodia, leading the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to spearhead an international effort to place an embargo on Hanoi. Most ASEAN members were staunchly behind the embargo. Curiously, Indonesia took the softest approach. Their reasoning: Jakarta did not want to “bleed Vietnam white” because it stood as a bulwark against China. Ironically, this meant that the most anti-communist member of ASEAN was advocating moderation toward communist Vietnam.


Not until the third quarter of 1999, after the selection of Abdurrahman Wahid as Indonesia’s new president, did the relationship with China show signs of change. Wahid, a moderate Islamic scholar and prolific columnist, took delight in playing devil’s advocate and saw value in shaking up traditional institutions, to include the Indonesian military.

One of the ways Wahid chose to do this was through China. Shortly after taking office, he announced that Indonesia would seek robust defense ties with China, India and Japan. Specifics were never offered, but he hinted this would include arms purchases and other forms of military cooperation. His underlying message was that Indonesia would offset its traditional military ties, especially with the United States, with a broader base of alliances.

As soon became apparent, Wahid’s pronouncement was little more than thinking aloud. All three of the nations he mentioned were hearing of the plan for the first time, and none were optimistic about its prospects. Japan was hardly about to jeopardize its ties with Washington in order to give Indonesia more leverage. And to think that Indonesia would bring sworn enemies New Delhi and Beijing into a quasi-alliance showed little appreciation for geopolitical realities.

To the surprise of few, Wahid’s musings did not go far. In the case of China, a number of Indonesian military delegations visited during the course of 2000 and 2001, though nothing of substance ever resulted. Organizing these meetings was the Indonesian ambassador to Beijing, Kuntara. A retired three star general, Kuntara had ironically been among those special forces officers who were coached in Mandarin during the seventies.

Military ties between Indonesia and China were not a total bust, however. China maintains a thriving arms industry and is always on the prowl for new clients. Indonesia, strapped for cash following the regional economic crisis, was not the most attractive market. Still, there was enough money in Jakarta’s coffers for lucrative deals on smaller items like automatic rifles. The Russians had found out as much when they won the tender to sell rifles to the Indonesian police. Even the Israelis had discretely paid a visit to sell the Galil to the Indonesian special forces.

China proved no less aggressive. North China Industries Corporation [Norinco] was reported to have approached the Indonesians in 2001 with the intent of selling its latest automatic rifle. This went nowhere, as did an attempt to sell 81mm mortars during the same year. (The Chinese military uses an 82mm mortar, but produces an 81mm mortar for export).

By mid-2001, the man who proposed the military rapprochement between Indonesia and China, President Wahid, was on the ropes. Removed from office in the third quarter, he was replaced by Sukarno’s daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri. Megawati took the top slot with a reputation for being close to the military. And it was under her watch that ties with Beijing received a boost in March 2002 when she embarked on a five-day state visit to China. Accompanied by 105 businessmen, her primary motive was to boost trade.

Ending her visit on a note of optimism, Megawati had reason for cheer. In January 2002, Indonesia’s state-owned oil company Pertamina and partner British Petroleum were short-listed as potential suppliers of natural gas to Guangdong, China. By mid-year, many saw Indonesia as an easy winner for the enormous contract.

Perhaps not by coincidence, Indonesian Minister of Defense Matori Abdul Djalil declared before the National Assembly during June that Indonesia would widen its foreign military links, especially in terms of financial support, to nations other than the United States. Among the nations with which Indonesia would seek better ties, said Matori, were Russia and China.

Matori’s public sentiments soon showed signs of bearing fruit. By July, Western diplomats picked up rumors that China was being strongly considered as a source for armored personnel carriers and amphibious tanks. The Indonesian Marines, who still use aging examples of the Soviet PT-76 amphibious tank, had long been shopping for a successor.

But before any sale could be consummated, Sino-Indonesian ties took a turn for the worse. In a shocking move, Beijing chose an Australian consortium to supply natural gas for Guangdong. Although Indonesia won a contract for a second (and less lucrative) Chinese tender, Jakarta saw the decision as a slap in the face. The proposed deal for Chinese armored vehicles instantly collapsed.

As it now stands, military ties between Indonesia and China show little substance. Although the hard feelings previously felt by many Indonesian generals toward China has softened, most observers see the relationship remaining one of benign neglect. Without the ideological backdrop of the Cold War, foreign largesse has taken a backseat to outright commercial deals. A Vietnamese military attaché in Jakarta, who follows the issue closely, put it this way: “China wants money, Indonesia can’t pay.”

Kenneth Conboy is the deputy director of the Asian Studies Center, a Washington based think tank, has travelled extensively in Southeast Asia and is the author of “Elite 33, South-East Asian Special Forces.”

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