Webinar on “COVID-19 and Indonesia-China Defence Relations: A Strategic Reset in the Making?”

The first in a series of webinars on China’s defence diplomacy in Southeast Asia, this webinar discussed China-Indonesia defence relations in the wake of COVID-19 and analysed China’s role within the wider context of Indonesia’s defence partnerships.


Tuesday, 15 September 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, with the support of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, organised a webinar on “COVID-19 and Indonesia-China Defence Relations: A Strategic Reset in the Making?” delivered by Dr Evan A. Laksmana. Dr Laksmana is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta, and has held visiting and research positions with the National Bureau of Asian Research, Sydney University’s Southeast Asia Centre, the Lowy Institute for International Policy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Dr Laksmana and Dr Ian Storey
Dr Evan Laksmana outlined four measures for evaluating the robustness of a strategic partnership. Dr Ian Storey moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Laksmana began his presentation by highlighting the series of high-level meetings and visits that have been held over the last nine months. Indonesia’s Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, for instance, met with Chinese military officials in Beijing as well as his Russian counterpart in Moscow in December 2019 and June 2020 respectively. China’s defence minister also visited Jakarta last week for talks with the country’s defence officials. These high-level visits, Dr Laksmana noted, are encouraging and have opened up new avenues of communication and areas for cooperation – ranging from military technology, COVID support to health supplies – between Indonesia and China. Before President Jokowi’s second term, Indonesia’s defence diplomacy with China had been very limited. The COVID pandemic, however, has seemingly provided extra momentum for the development of this nascent defence relationship.

Dr Laksmana outlined four measures for evaluating the robustness of a strategic partnership – military education and training exchanges, joint exercises, information and intelligence sharing, and military technology procurement and co-development. Based on these four measures, China still lags behind countries such as the United States, Australia and Singapore. America and Australia, for instance, are the two largest providers of education and training for the Indonesian armed forces. However, given that Indonesia and China only resumed formal diplomatic relations in the early 1990s, this relatively underdeveloped defence partnership is understandable. Beyond strategic partnerships, Dr Laksmana also discussed the three broad activities which Indonesia’s defence diplomacy usually takes – confidence building measures, capacity building and defence industrial development.

With regard to arms sales, Dr Laksmana noted that Indonesia is structurally dependent on its existing platforms acquired from the United States, Russia, Germany etc. over the last 15-20 years. This dependence will not be easily overturned by China, given that buying weaponry requires a wider maintenance, training and operational infrastructure. Military exercises with China have also been limited – for instance, there is still uncertainty over whether the bilateral special ops exercise Sharp Knife will be expanded to include the wider armed services. Overall, Dr Laksmana noted several challenges in China-Indonesia defence relations. Firstly, the lack of institutionalised military-to-military communication systems between the two countries; secondly, the sensitivity of fostering closer relations with China vis-à-vis public sentiment in Indonesia; thirdly, the lack of regular and sophisticated joint exercises; and lastly, difficult negotiations with the Chinese on the transfer of knowledge and military technology.

The webinar was attended by 86 participants from both Singapore and abroad. Issues that were discussed during the virtual Q&A session included the impact of CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) on China-Indonesia defence relations, Indonesia’s defence ties with other major powers such India and Russia, as well as the potential benefits and constraints a Biden administration could have for US-Indonesia relations.

Webinar on “COVID-19 and Indonesia-China Defence Relations: A Strategic Reset in the Making?”
Over 80 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)