Negotiating Coexistence? Indonesia and Malaysia’s Tacit Understandings vis-à-vis China

About the Talk
How and why do Indonesia and Malaysia pursue their policies of “tacit understanding” vis-à-vis China in the face of Beijing’s maritime assertiveness? This seminar unpacks the politics underpinning the two Southeast Asian states’ approaches in dealing with intensifying great power competition, particularly in the maritime domain. Under Jokowi’s presidency, Indonesia has willingly sacrificed some degree of autonomy in exchange for Chinese investments for economic development. This approach is a departure from its predecessor which emphasised the preservation of strategic autonomy. Furthermore, to deal with intensifying Chinese Coast Guard and fishing incursions in the northern part of the Natunas, Indonesia is pursuing a “tacit understanding” policy, ensuring that the episodic skirmishes in the Natunas do not get in the way of cordial bilateral relations. The gambit of compromising autonomy also entices the U.S. to pay attention to Indonesia. Indonesia’s departure from the preservation of strategic autonomy can thus be regarded as the latest manifestation of its “free and active” foreign policy principle. Indonesia’s “tacit understanding” policy is similar to Malaysia’s longstanding approach when dealing with China. The crux of Malaysia’s China strategy is ensuring that Beijing adheres to the boundaries set by Kuala Lumpur, such as no-forceful interference in Malaysia’s oil exploitation in disputed areas. Indonesia and Malaysia have negotiated their terms of coexistence with Beijing, in effect, offering limited room for China to express strength. Indonesia and Malaysia’s ability to do so indicate the preferred strategy of Southeast Asian states to cope with changes in the regional order by leveraging their relationships with the great powers.

About the Speaker
Emirza Adi Syailendra is a Ph.D. candidate at the Strategic and Defence Study Center at the Australian National University. He is an associate research fellow at the Indonesia Programme of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He is a recipient of the 2022 ANU Malaysia–Australia Maritime Fellowship and is currently a fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS), the National University of Malaysia (UKM).

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