Xinjiang Remains an Enigma in Indonesia's Relationship With China

Xinjiang Remains an Enigma in Indonesia's Relationship With China
Credit: Reuters / TPG
Why you need to know

The world's largest Muslim-majority country has been unable to take a strong stance against the 're-education camps.'

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Coverage of re-education camps for Uyghur and other minority Muslims in China’s far western Xinjiang region is still coloring the international media. Criticism of the camps continues to roll out from all corners of the globe. It is reported that the camps are used for the detention and torture of up to one million participants, mostly Uyghur Muslims, of what the government calls “re-education” programs. The camps follow many years of strict supervision of Muslim communities in Xinjiang carried out by the Chinese government.

Criticism from the Turkish government last month further raised the public profile of the camps. A strong statement from Istanbul was triggered by information about the apparent death of Abdurehim Heyit, an Uyghur musician and poet, in the camps. Al Jazeera stated that Turkey’s move was the first public condemnation of the camps by a Muslim-majority country. Previously, Australia, the U.S., Canada, and other Western countries have called for China to close the camps, but the efforts have been unsuccessful and the condemnations, in the eyes of many, have not been sufficiently forceful.

One day later, China responded to Turkey’s sharp criticism by releasing a short video showing Abdurehim Heyit in a good health. This video was likely a rebuttal of the Turkish criticism. although the authenticity of the video footage is still debated.

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Credit: AP / Ng Han Guan
The Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center in Xinjiang.

The response made by China signals that it is reactive to the actions of other countries, such as Turkey. It demonstrates that China does not remain silent when it is “attacked” through scathing criticism and external commentary. Nonetheless, despite criticism from the international community, China continues to maintain that the camps serve “educational” purposes.

Jakarta’s response

Indonesia, which is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, has still taken no clear position on the so-called re-education camps in Xinjiang. Several Indonesian media outlets quoted Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla stating that Jakarta stands strongly against all acts of human rights violations, but if said matters relate to the domestic affairs of other countries, the government would not want to be involved. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also tried to act proactively through diplomatic communication with the Chinese ambassador to Indonesia, but this effort had not had a significant impact in resolving the issue of the camps in Xinjiang.

On the other hand, during the Diplomacy Festival (DiploFest) event held in the West Sumatran city of Padang recently, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi stressed that the strength of Indonesia's diplomacy comes through peace and humanitarian measures. Using various strategies, the foreign ministry has been consistent in giving support to countries or certain groups within nations that are hit by prolonged conflicts, such as Palestine, Afghanistan and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

It is unfortunate, however, that this emphasis on peace and humanitarian diplomacy has not been clearly seen in Indonesia's attitude towards Xinjiang’s re-education camps – this despite various highly credible reports of the persecution and torture of hundreds of thousands of camp residents, including reports by well-known NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Indonesia at a crossroads

Indonesia and China have long enjoyed strong diplomatic and economic relations. Since the founding of the Republic of Indonesia, Jakarta has established strong relations with Beijing despite the tug-of-war in several periods of Indonesian government leadership.

In recent years, ties between the two countries have strengthened and expanded exponentially. The development of various sectors in Indonesia can be credited to the close relationship between Indonesia and China. According to the Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM), China is among the top three foreign investors in Indonesia. Gong Bencai, the President of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Indonesia, also said that there were approximately 1,000 Chinese companies operating in Indonesia. It can safely be said that China has had a major influence on the growth of Indonesia, especially in the economic sector.

Unfortunately, the strong relationship between Jakarta and Beijing is also a stumbling block keeping Indonesia from being more vocal in standing up for the rights of Uyghurs and other minority Muslims in Xinjiang. Jakarta has carefully avoided taking a position so as not to disrupt the relationship it continues to build with China.

Any implementation of the peace and humanitarian diplomacy emphasized by Marsudi wlil thus, in this case, lose vis-a-vis the country’s economic interests – namely, its massive investments from China.

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Credit: Reuters / Feline Lim
Indonesia's Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Marsudi’s personal approach in speaking to Chinese Ambassador to Indonesia Xiao Qian is a good first step in diplomacy to try and begin a dialogue over the internment camps. Of course, such efforts must intensify. Indonesia’s membership in the UN Security Council as a Non-Permanent Member and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) should be used to communicate with China.

Beijing pays very close attention the attitudes and actions of other countries towards China. Its government has shown itself to be sensitive to criticism of its domestic affairs – not just from Turkey, but from the United States and other state and non-state actors. This was made visible last January, when dozens of foreign ambassadors and representatives of the European Union were allowed to make a visit to Xinjiang. The action shows that China is sensitive to the views and opinions of the international community regarding the situation in Xinjiang.

While the Indonesian government must take a strong stance against the camps in Xinjiang, it still must carefully consider the actions it takes in doing so. After all, any rash decision could jeopardize its close and crucial economic ties with China.

Read Next: Trump Urged by Lawmakers to Take Action on China's Abuse of Muslims

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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