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Opinion

How Jokowi bested China, while Duterte ended up a lackey

Indonesia and Philippines use very different strategies in dealing with Beijing

| Indonesia
Despite five years of servility, China's President Xi Jinping has rewarded has Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte with nothing, not even the COVID vaccines China promised to deliver by the end of 2020.   © Reuters

Richard Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, columnist and author of "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy" and the "The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery."

When it comes to the leaders of Southeast Asia's two largest nations Indonesia and the Philippines -- both fledgling democracies in the grip of populism -- each unhappy nation is unhappy in his own way, to paraphrase Leo Tolstoy.

On the surface, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his Indonesian counterpart Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, not only preside over two very similar nations, but are almost cut from the same cloth. Yet, the two leaders have approached their relations with China quite differently -- and with radically divergent results.

While Duterte's yearslong kowtow to China has brought him not one single big-ticket investment so far, Jokowi's more dignified and sophisticated strategy has secured optimal investment, as well as the early delivery of millions of Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines. One batch finally arrived at the beginning of the month, and another batch last week for a total of one million shots.

The unmistakable lesson, it seems, is that China treats meek leaders such as Duterte with contempt, but will strike mutually beneficial deals with the likes of Jokowi, who has consistently refused to be intimidated by Asia's superpower. In recent years, Duterte and Jokowi, have been the face of populist politics in Southeast Asia. Both are former provincial mayors who rose to the pinnacle of power by campaigning against a corrupt establishment.

While Duterte has portrayed himself as a man of the people, Jokowi has made proactive service to ordinary citizens the centerpiece of his agenda. Both have adopted tough-on-crime policies, especially toward narcotics.

Crucially, both presidents have staked their development agenda on Chinese largesse, much to the chagrin of conservative forces who have accused them of acting as Beijing's stooges. And yet, Jokowi managed to develop a relatively fruitful relationship based on mutual respect, while Duterte has been left swinging.

While Jokowi relied on a strategy of dynamic balancing among major powers, giving him room for maneuver, Duterte tried to abandon the Philippines' century-old alliance with the U.S. as part of his pivot to China.

A foreign policy neophyte, Duterte unwittingly laid out his cards before becoming being sworn in as president in an interview with Chinese state media in early 2016. "What I need from China is help to develop my country," Duterte pleaded.

Just months later, Duterte became the first Philippine president to choose China, rather than U.S. or Japan, for his first major overseas visit. He is also the first Philippine president to refuse to even visit any major Western capital -- including Washington -- throughout his six-year term.

Convinced of Duterte's naivete, China pledged up to $24 billion in investments, including several large-scale infrastructure projects in Duterte's home of Mindanao. These empty pledges were enough to convince Duterte to forward-deploy major concessions, including the controversial decision not to assert the Philippines' historic arbitration victory against China in the South China Sea.

To Beijing's delight, Duterte even threatened to nix defense cooperation with the U.S. and share precious energy resources within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone with China. Even worse, Duterte quickly came to Beijing's defense when a suspected Chinese militia vessel almost drowned dozens of Filipino fishermen near Reed Bank in 2019.

Proudly confessing his "love" for China's leadership, Duterte has maintained the belief that one has to be "meek" in order to secure Beijing's "mercy." When pressed to stand up to Chinese incursion into Philippine waters, Duterte responded that he was "inutile", too powerless to act. After five years of strategic servility, Duterte has little to show for his pivot to Beijing, not even the large volume of free COVID vaccines China promised to deliver by the end of 2020.

Jokowi, in contrast, has visited both Washington and Beijing, as well as managing to cultivate robust security cooperation with each superpower, strengthening Indonesia's strategic leverage accordingly. When China stepped up its intrusion into Indonesian waters off the Natuna Islands in late 2019, the Indonesian president not only deployed fighter jets and the navy but personally visited the area to remind China that there would "no compromise" over maritime and territorial issues.

Indonesia's president Joko Widodo has managed to cultivate a productive relationship with China's Xi Jinping based on trust and mutual respect.   © Reuters

And despite Indonesia having no direct claim on the South China Sea, Jokowi's diplomats officially invoked the Philippines' arbitration award to question China's expansive claims, as well as openly calling out China over its alleged election interference operations.

As for foreign investment, Indonesia has actively courted not only China but rival nations such as Japan. This conscious strategy of diversification partly explains why Jakarta was able to secure extremely favorable terms, arguably the best under China's Belt and Road Initiative, for the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway project.

And when China slackened in fulfilling multibillion-dollar promises, Jokowi did not shy away from using Japan to get Beijing's attention. By 2019, Japan and China became Indonesia's top foreign investors, with dozens of big-ticket infrastructure projects in the pipeline, as Jokowi comfortably played the two economic giants off against each other.

There are lessons here for the rest of the world, especially small and developing countries, in the way these two Southeast Asian nations have handled evermore assertive China.

Indonesia has shown that even poorer nations have the capacity to shape Beijing's behavior, provided they do not naively telegraph major concessions a la Duterte. Jokowi's strategic courage and astuteness shows that not all populists are alike though they have risen to power in similarly unhappy circumstances.

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