Indonesia: Issues to Watch for in 2021

16 December 2020 Jarryd de Haan, Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Indonesia may see the worst of the pandemic in 2021 and Australia should closely watch how Jakarta’s relationship with Beijing develops. The fate of the hardline Front Pembela Islam may also be decided, which could have a significant impact on the broader community.


As 2020 comes a close, Indonesia finds itself at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic with daily statistics for new cases and deaths continuing to rise. With vaccine doses beginning to arrive, next year will see if Indonesia can bring the pandemic down to a manageable level and what sort of economic repercussions it will face in the aftermath. On the political front, the relationship with China has been characterised as “standby for take-off”, while a prominent and influential Islamic figure has been arrested.


The COVID-19 pandemic has been the most closely watched issue around the globe and, for Indonesia, that will remain true for at least the first part of 2021. With vaccinations about to commence, there could be a level of optimism that Indonesia could soon begin to flatten the curve. There is, however, a lot of ground to cover. Recent statistics provided by the government show that 18.7% of tests are coming backing positive. That is over three times higher than the ‘uncontrolled outbreak’ standard set by the World Health Organisation. Additionally, with a population of 267-million, providing enough vaccinations to downgrade the situation to a controlled outbreak is a monumental task. Current plans are to vaccinate 107-million people by 2022 with a third of those recipients having the cost of the vaccine covered by the government. With approximately thirty per cent of the urban population living in tightly-packed slums, where there is poor access to healthcare services, the situation is likely to get worse before the spread is slowed.

Indonesia’s relationship with China will be closely watched in Australia, partly because of Canberra’s own falling out with Beijing. While the Chinese Government unofficially banned Australian coal imports, it has pushed for companies to partner with Indonesian coal exporters, with some already inking deals. Overall, 2020 has seen some positives and negatives for the Indonesia-China relationship but, unlike Canberra’s relationship with Beijing, disagreements have not spiralled into tit-for-tat exchanges. For that reason, while next year may see issues such as the South China Sea and Sinophobia may rear their heads, on a government-to-government level, the relationship will likely progress onwards or at least stay intact.

Looking more locally, Muhammed Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI), was arrested on 12 December, just one month after making a big return from Saudi Arabia in front of tens of thousands of loyal followers. That arrest is significant, as Rizieq, a hugely influential figure within Indonesia, has been on the wrong side of the Indonesian Government and authorities for some time, with FPI members having clashed with police in the past. Prior to his return, Rizieq spent over three years in Riyadh avoiding pornography-related charges, a serious offence in Indonesian law. On top of his arrest, six members of FPI were killed in an altercation with Jakarta police one week earlier. While the circumstances of the shooting are still under investigation, it seems to send a strong message to the group. In addition, the Indonesian Armed Forces has also taken a strong stance against FPI, recently tearing down banners supporting Rizieq, while one of its top commanders threatened to take further action against the group. In a previous Strategic Weekly Analysis discussing the ban of hardline Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, FPI was seen as relatively safe. If tensions between FPI and the authorities continue to flare next year, however, it is possible that the group could face dissolution, or at least severe restrictions to its operations and influence.

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