Divergence of interests in Abe's maiden visit to Indonesia

Days before Mr Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the US on Jan 20, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe - uncertain about whether to continue relying on the US to protect Japan's security and economic interests - took the initiative to cast the net wider in the search for close friends and allies.

Mr Abe also sought to counter China's rising assertiveness and contest its influence in the Asia-Pacific by advancing Japan's national interest through boosting economic and security arrangements, although his decision could have been politically motivated as he is seen at home as a nationalistic leader.

It was against this geopolitical backdrop that Mr Abe made several trips abroad, including his two-day maiden state visit to Indonesia on Jan 15. He was warmly welcomed by President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who had already met Mr Abe four times since taking office in 2014.

At first glance, Mr Abe's Indonesian visit had a clear economic purpose as he took with him a delegation of around 30 prominent Japanese businessmen. Japan is a leading foreign investor in Indonesia, pumping in US$4.5 billion (S$6.4 billion) in the first nine months of 2016. Bilateral trade also increased, reaching US$24 billion in the first 10 months of 2016. Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister Luhut Pandjaitan, who held Japan up as an "ideal model for infrastructural development", said Mr Joko and Mr Abe were to discuss four major strategic projects - the Patimban port, the Jakarta-Surabaya rail project, the East Natuna oil and gas block as well as chemical and fertiliser projects.

A closer look at Mr Abe's Indonesian visit, however, shows that the Japanese leader was mainly concerned with security matters, while Mr Joko was primarily concerned with economic benefits. With the exception of project details regarding the Patimban port, located near Bekasi in West Java, where quite a number of Japanese companies are concentrated, remarks made by both leaders at a joint press conference after their closed-door meeting in Bogor Palace were rather anodyne, with both merely stressing continued bilateral economic cooperation.

But what was telling from the press conference was Mr Abe saying that Japan attaches huge importance to maintaining and promoting a rules-based order in the South China Sea by resolving disputes peacefully in accordance with international law. In this regard, Mr Abe pledged that Japan would cooperate with Indonesia on maritime security, not least in and around the Natunas, where Chinese incursions have taken place in waters within Indonesia's exclusive economic zone. In reality, however, this proposition is likely to face a push-back and be rejected altogether as the Joko administration, not least the navy, would be reluctant to draw a foreign country into patrolling Indonesian waters.

Cooperating with Japan on maritime security in the South China Sea could also generate consternation among Beijing leadership. That is something Jakarta prefers to avoid, given the enhanced economic engagement between China and Indonesia. Perhaps less controversial is for Mr Abe's Japan, as encouraged by Mr Joko's Indonesia, to enhance its maritime cooperation with member countries of the Indian Ocean Rim Association, chaired currently by Indonesia.

Curiously, no mention was made of Mr Abe's "Indo-Pacific Strategy proposal" at the press conference, although The Jakarta Post reported that it had been discussed at the closed-door meeting. Mr Abe's proposal, which seeks to promote "cooperation among Japan, Asean countries, the US, Australia and India", is strategically similar to Chinese President Xi Jinping's grandiose One Belt-One Road (Obor) maritime initiative, with The Jakarta Post calling it the "Japanese vision of Obor".

One plausible reason for not mentioning this proposal publicly is that Mr Abe may have sensed, as was echoed by several Indonesian scholars, that Mr Joko would not be keen to partake in such an initiative as he was primarily interested in domestic economic development. Moreover, Mr Joko does not want to be seen as taking sides between Japan and China on similar but competing maritime initiatives.

It appears that the Indonesian newspapers were not very enthusiastic about Mr Abe's visit as most of the projects involving Japan were pledges with no concrete outcomes. Local Chinese papers, chiefly the pro-Beijing Yinhua Ribao, saw Mr Abe's visit as obstructing Sino-Indonesian ties. It listed those Japanese investments in Indonesia which brought much benefit to Japan at Indonesia's expense. In an editorial, The Jakarta Post calledthe visit disappointing and unsatisfactory, and urged Japan to open its markets to Indonesian agricultural and fishery products, and cheap and quality workers. The editorial also attributed the sluggishness in Tokyo's relations with Jakarta to "Indonesia tilting towards China, which Japan fiercely competes" against.

But the editorial also proceeded to assert that "Indonesia knows, however, it needs Japan not only economically but also in regional security terms. With Indonesia to a certain extent showing hostility to rising China, Japan is among the few countries that can play a deterrent role vis-a-vis the world's second-largest economy".

This hostility towards China has domestic political underpinnings, because of rising sentiments against Indonesian Chinese, as illustrated by the ongoing Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) saga, and Mr Joko being accused by nationalistic anti-China critics of cosying up to Beijing. As such, Japan could present Indonesia with a useful hedge of not being over-reliant on China. Japan could use this opportunity to further engage with Indonesia at a time when doing so would be more domestically acceptable and less controversial for Indonesian policymakers.

On the whole, it appears that Mr Joko's Indonesia wanted and expected Mr Abe's Japan to do more to help in economic terms. In contrast, Mr Abe's Japan was concerned more with security issues. It is thus understandable that both Jakarta and Tokyo may not be completely satisfied with the outcome of Mr Abe's visit. Japan's relations with Indonesia, despite brimming with potential, remain underdeveloped.

With the two countries set to commemorate 60 years of diplomatic ties next year, the feel-good factor from the upcoming anniversary could be an incentive to strengthen relations, both in the economic sphere and beyond.

•Leo Suryadinata is visiting senior fellow and Mustafa Izzuddin is fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2017, with the headline 'Divergence of interests in Abe's maiden visit to Indonesia'. Print Edition | Subscribe