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China and Japan find middle ground in Indonesia

China and Japan find middle ground in Indonesia
Published 24 Apr 2015 

Indonesia became a middle ground for China-Japan relations this week as the leaders of both nations attended the Asia-Africa Conference in Jakarta.

At the opening ceremony on Wednesday, Indonesia's President Jokowi was rather symbolically seated directly between China's President Xi Jinping and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to avoid giving the appearance of preference for either leader.

This is a stance Jokowi has maintained during his first six months as president. Despite suggestions that his party's preference is for loyalty to China over Japan, Jokowi has given a studious impression of neutrality, courting both countries for investment in a trip to Tokyo and Beijing last month. While China responded more generously than Japan — with an offering of around $63 billion in investment from Chinese companies compared to $8.9 billion from Japanese companies — Jokowi has refused to pick sides.

Investment from both countries will be crucial for Indonesia's development during Jokowi's five-year term, and especially for the realisation of the president's vision for Indonesia to become a global maritime axis.

China has enthusiastically backed the development of Indonesia's maritime infrastructure, pledging support during Jokowi's recent visit for private investment and sponsorship of projects through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Meanwhile, Japan has offered to form a bilateral 'maritime forum' with Indonesia to enhance cooperation on maritime security and infrastructure development. [fold]

One point Jokowi has been clear on is the need for peaceful resolution of maritime disputes and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity among states in the region, interpreted by some as a statement of tacit support for Japan in its conflict with China over islands in the East China Sea. However, this has clearly not become a problem for cooperation with China and its investments in Indonesia.

With most negotiations taken care of during the visits to China and Japan last month, there was little left for Jokowi to discuss with Xi and Abe at the conference in Jakarta besides the implementation of the commitments made so far. For the two foreign leaders, however, the conference posed an opportunity to meet face-to-face and continue the slow thawing of relations.

The much anticipated meeting between Xi and Abe on the sidelines of the conference continued the process of mending relations that started when the two leaders met late last year. Amid ongoing tensions regarding territorial and historical disputes, China and Japan reaffirmed a commitment to improving relations in the interests of mutual strategic benefit and regional stability. To this end, Jokowi has done well to place Indonesia as a middle ground for the rival regional powers.

Photo courtesy of AACD2015.

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