Jokowi: Indonesia will remain neutral in US-China spat; prefers to work on virus fight as Covid-19 total goes above 406,000

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo discussing with United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Bogor Palace in West Java on Thursday evening (Oct 29,2020). - The Jakarta Post/Asian News Network

JAKARTA, Oct 30 (Jakarta Post/ANN): The government upheld its pledge to remain neutral in the rivalry between China and the United States on Thursday (Oct 29), as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stopped by Jakarta during a whirlwind Asian tour aimed at coaxing key countries in the region to stem the rise of China.

After a bilateral meeting with Pompeo, during which he praised Indonesia for safeguarding its “maritime sovereignty" in the North Natuna Sea and said that China's claims of the South China Sea were unlawful, Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi said Indonesia was sticking to its principle of a free and independent foreign policy.

"I reemphasized the need to pursue inclusive cooperation amid this challenging time, and I underlined the need for every country to be part of the solution in the collective contribution towards world peace, stability and prosperity," Retno said on Friday (Oct 30).

She added that her meeting with Pompeo was "cordial" and "productive". Retno’s statement echoed what she said in September when she cautioned both China and the US not to involve Indonesia in their regional struggle for influence. "We don't want to get trapped by this rivalry," Retno said during an interview with Reuters.

In a joint press conference with Retno on Thursday morning, Pompeo praised Indonesia for taking "decisive action to safeguard its maritime sovereignty" in the North Natuna Sea, as Indonesia refers to the northern reaches of its Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea.

"I'm looking forward to cooperating together in the new ways to ensure maritime security and protect some of the world's busiest trade routes," Pompeo said.

Pompeo also slammed what he called "unlawful claims" by China in the South China Sea and called on countries in the region to challenge the move.

"All law-abiding nations reject the unlawful claims made by the Chinese Communist Party in the South China Sea, as it's clear from Indonesia's courageous leadership on the subject within Asean and at the United Nations," Pompeo said.

Indonesia is a nonclaimant state in the South China Sea dispute but has had diplomatic spats with China when its coast guard and fishing vessels were detected within Indonesia's Exclusive Economic Zone in the North Natuna Sea, which is located adjacent to the contested South China Sea.

Speaking after joining President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo in a meeting with Pompeo at the Bogor Palace in West Java, Retno maintained that the US and Indonesia were good partners, and Indonesia wanted the US to be “a true friend” of the archipelago.

She added, however, that Indonesia’s attitude toward the US was not something that could be “taken for granted, ” and that to maintain the partnership, Indonesia expected to see serious efforts and mutual understanding.

“The President stressed that Indonesia would like to see economic cooperation between the two countries increase in the future, including, of course, the extension of GSP [generalized system of preferences] facilities to Indonesia, ” she said.

In 2018, US President Donald Trump said his administration would review GSP benefits provided to several developing countries, including Indonesia, with which the US has a trade deficit. Jakarta has since tried to lobby the US in the hopes of retaining its trade privileges. India and Thailand both lost trade privileges with the US in October last year.

For now, I think Indonesia saw it as something to attract investment from the US, especially those who want to relocate from China and sought to diversify [...] in Southeast Asia countries," Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) head of economic department Yose Rizal Damuri said.

Pompeo’s stopover in Jakarta came on the heels of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's visit to Vietnam and Indonesia last week. It also took place shortly after Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto's visit to Washington earlier this month by invitation from US Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

The two shared their respective countries’ desires to enhance bilateral military-to-military activities and work together on maritime security.

In his meeting with Pompeo on Thursday, Jokowi said he wanted the US to understand the interests of developing countries, Muslim countries and Southeast Asian countries.

In the lead-up to the trip to Jakarta, the top US diplomat has kept up his anti-China rhetoric in his Asia tour. Before meeting Indonesian officials, Pompeo was in the Maldives, Sri Lanka and India, where he warned of the threat posed by an increasingly assertive China.

“We see from bad deals, violations of sovereignty and lawlessness on land and sea that the Chinese Communist Party is a predator, and the United States comes in a different way; we come as a friend and as a partner, ” Pompeo said in Colombo as quoted by Reuters.

Pompeo continued his attacks on China during a speech delivered to members of the Nahdlatul Ulama, the country's largest Muslim organisation.

"The gravest threat to the future of religious freedom is the Chinese Communist Party's war against people of all faiths: Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Falun Gong practitioners alike," Pompeo said in a speech.

On the issue of GSPs, Yose of CSIS said Indonesia, which had risen from a lower-middle-income country to an upper-middle economy this year, might lose its GSP privileges within a few years.

Retaining such privileges could help Indonesia maintain its attractiveness to foreign investors, he said. “Usually, when a country loses its GSP perks, they still have a preferential trade arrangement. But Indonesia does not have that with the US, ” he said.

Meanwhile, the Covid-19 cases in Indonesia rose by 2,897 within one day to 406,945, with the death toll adding by 81 to 13,782, the health ministry said on Friday.

According to the ministry, 4,517 more people were discharged from hospitals, bringing the total number of recovered patients to 334,295.

The virus has spread to all the country's 34 provinces. Specifically, within the past 24 hours, Jakarta recorded 612 new cases, West Java 320, West Sumatra 301, East Java 222 and East Kalimantan 205.

No more new positive cases were found in three provinces, namely East Nusa Tenggara, Central Sulawesi and Maluku. - The Jakarta Post/Asian News Network

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