The ballots hadn’t even been counted yet when the deals were announced. On April 26, just two days after Election Day, Indonesia signed 23 memorandums of understanding with China, worth $14.2 billion in all, for several major infrastructure projects. They came after months of silence about Chinese investment in Indonesia—by design, as President Joko Widodo feared attempts by the opposition to paint him as being too pro-China. It worked, as, in the end, the issue of Chinese investment did not play the same divisive role in Indonesia that it did in elections in Malaysia, the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Instead, Jokowi, as Widodo is widely known, easily won reelection.
The news about the investments are welcome, from a purely economic standpoint. Jokowi initially ran in 2014 promising to upgrade Indonesia’s woeful infrastructure, and he has been able to deliver on some of his pledges. Indonesia’s ranking on the World Bank’s Logistics Performance Indicator—a kind of index of a country’s infrastructure—rose from 53 in 2014 to 46 in 2018, ahead of Mexico, Turkey and Brazil. Nevertheless, Indonesia still has a long way to go to ensure its ports, roads and railways are able to meet the demands of its 260 million people and the government’s own ambitious development plans. Five years just wasn’t enough for Jokowi to fix decades of under-investment.
“Until Jokowi came along, there hadn’t really been a serious infrastructure drive in a long time,” says Lin Neumann, managing director at the American Chamber of Commerce in Indonesia. “Indonesia was behind on everything. There was very little attention paid to roads, highways, bridges or ports.”