Bilateral relations Improved Indonesia-Malaysia ties ‘significant’ for ASEAN

Ties between Indonesia and Malaysia have been tense for some time due to maritime disputes and a spat over migrant workers. But analyst Zachary Abuza believes President Widodo’s Malaysia trip can help ease tensions.

Date 06.02.2015
Author Interview: Gabriel Domínguez

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, February 5, with the two Southeast Asian countries hoping to improve ties, which are frequently strained by diplomatic spats.

Prior to the meeting between the two leaders, the Indonesian foreign ministry said that Widodo and Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak would discuss a range of topics including disputes on maritime borders and the treatment of Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia. Jokowi and Razak are also expected to seal some trade agreements.

In a DW interview, Zachary Abuza, an independent researcher on Southeast Asian security, says that while both Jokowi and Razak are facing domestic challenges, they understand the significance of improved bilateral ties and have the desire to resolve conflicts.

Widodo arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday on his first official trip abroad since coming to power

DW: What are the main issues on President Jokowi’s agenda during his Malaysia trip?

Zachary Abuza: I am not at all surprised that President Jokowi chose Malaysia for his first official visit abroad. Malaysia is Indonesia’s key economic partner within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and Jokowi has made it clear that his primary agenda would deal with economy. However, his foreign policy priorities are less ambitious than his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s and are more regional in nature.

There are a number of important bilateral issues for the two heads of states to discuss. The foremost is the sensitive issue of migrant Indonesian workers, many of whom work illegally in Malaysia.

There has been a spat over the poor treatment of a number of Indonesia’s domestic workers living in Malaysia, and the forced deportation of thousands of them caused an uproar in Jakarta. We must not forget that the remittances from overseas workers are very important for Indonesia’s underperforming economy. There is a lot of trade interdependence between the two countries.

What does Jokowi want to achieve in Malaysia, and what does PM Razak expect from the Indonesian president?

Both leaders hope to make some progress in bilateral relations for domestic reasons. Both of them are facing growing political opposition in their countries. Jokowi’s honeymoon period has come to a very quick end.

He has problems within his own party and he has also been under fire because of his original choice of the national police chief, who was under investigation for corruption at the time of his appointment. Also, President Jokowi needs to do much more to improve the state of economy, part of which is attracting more foreign investment.

Razak, on the other hand, has his own problems including a backlash against his heavy-handed use of the Sedition Act against political opponents, the upcoming verdict in the Anwar Ibrahim case, and the economic pressures created by reduced global oil prices.

What are the main issues of contention between the two nations?

Malaysia is concerned about Jakarta’s more assertive defense of its maritime sovereignty. Recently, it sank a foreign fishing vessel within Indonesian waters, an act condemned by the Indonesian government.

The two countries, however, have good cooperation in counterterrorism and both are very concerned about their citizens going to conflict zones in Syria and Iraq to participate in jihad.
Jokowi and Najib discuss maritime disputes

And there is a real concern over China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. Both countries have taken a more ambiguous positions on this issue in comparison to the Philippines and Vietnam.

Malaysia has close ties with Beijing, and many analysts believe that when Malaysia takes over ASEAN’s rotating presidency this year, the grouping will be less willing to confront China.

Indonesia’s own position on South China Sea is complex. China’s nine-dashed line cuts through Indonesia’s most lucrative offshore gas field off Natuna Island. Jakarta demanded an explanation from Beijing, which it never received.

How important are good relations between Indonesia and Malaysia for ASEAN?

Good relations between these two founding members of ASEAN are significant for the regional bloc. ASEAN really needs Malaysia and Indonesia to step up and lead the grouping this year.

Zachary Abuza is an independent researcher on Southeast Asian security and the author of “The Conspiracy of Silence: The Insurgency in Southern Thailand,” published by the United States Institute of Peace.