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Why Many Indonesians Think Jokowi Fumbled Chinese High-Speed Rail Diplomacy, Even As It Nears Completion

A bullet train bound for Jakarta is seen during a trial at the Tegalluar station in Bandung on May 22, 2023. TIMUR MATAHARI / AFP

The China-backed high-speed train that runs from Jakarta to Bandung, two main cities in Indonesia, is nearing completion, and is slated to begin serving the public in August this year. But after about a decade of planning and construction, the excitement just isn’t there. Not anymore.

First of all, the opening of the railway is three years behind schedule. The date was moved to 2022, and then, 2023. Meantime, with each delay the project’s costs swelled, and the government was forced to dig into the state budget after promising the people that it would not have to.

Then, there’s the environmental impact. The railway construction damaged people’s houses and polluted nearby farms and water. There’s now risks of flooding and landslides for residents dwelling near the railway’s tunnels in Cimahi, West Java.

Meiki Paendong, executive director of The Indonesian Forum for Living Environment (WALHI), said that there is a suspicion that the environmental impact assessment was not followed by railway builders. “The tunnel blasting damaged not only houses, but also the soil and is feared…that it will cause landslides,” Paendong said.

Some critics were quick to put the blame for the project’s overall carelessness on China’s purported “debt trap”, while others point out that it’s always been President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s own doing.

Personally, I’m leaning towards the latter. After all, this was a project conceived in an exhilarating time, laden with ambition, and rushed to quench a thirst for becoming “first-world”.

The year was 2014, and a new hope was born. Indonesians had just elected Jokowi. The new president was an outsider and did not come from the archipelago’s deeply-entrenched political class, and he brought with him a promise to make Indonesia a developed country, preaching the rewards of infrastructure development.

People loved it. It was in this euphoric moment after the election that the high-speed rail dream captured many Indonesians. We imagined our own shiny Japanese-style shinkansen bullet train that would maybe, just maybe generate more respect from the rest of the world. We didn’t listen when some questioned the benefits of a new train, since we already had so many other transportation options between those two cities.

Nevertheless, Jokowi took the Beijing-Tianjin bullet train when he visited China shortly after his inauguration. He was clearly very impressed, and vowed to build the same kind of railway back home in Indonesia.

Jokowi had a long list of things he wanted to achieve, and he soon realized that the high-speed rail could be more than just an isolated economic aspiration. It was to be his stepping stone in diplomacy to attract more foreign investment.

It was also — and perhaps most importantly — Jokowi’s leverage in negotiations with the Western block and its allies. Now this might be the real reason why Jokowi opted for China over Japan to deliver the bullet train. 

But, from the beginning, “Jokowi was overconfident,” an analyst who spoke anonymously due to the sensitivity of the issue told CGSP. His miscalculation, the analyst said, was to let his guard down when dealing with the high-speed rail side with China.

“When you do business with China, everything must be clear from the get go,” the analyst said. “If not, this is what we get.”

Antonia Timmerman is The China-Global South Project’s Southeast Asia Editor based in Jakarta, Indonesia.

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