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What Can Be Done to Boost Indonesia-Central Asia Relations?

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What Can Be Done to Boost Indonesia-Central Asia Relations?

Distance and weak connectivity are major challenges, but there is the potential for a stronger partnership that would benefit the two regions’ people and business communities.

What Can Be Done to Boost Indonesia-Central Asia Relations?
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There are not many references available on cooperation between Indonesia and the states of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – which perhaps explains the low level of political-economic commitments between the two so far.

While Islam plays a key part in both sides’ sociocultural fabrics and both Indonesia and the Central Asian countries have similar natural resource potential (in energy, minerals, and agriculture), there remain challenges in strengthening relations due to the large geographical distance between the two regions, weak economic ties and connectivity, and political instability in some Central Asian countries. In addition, and importantly, the foreign policy priorities of both sides, for the time being, seem to lean toward deepening cooperation with major power countries (e.g. the U.S., China, and Russia).

Indonesia has had diplomatic relations with all of the Central Asian countries since 1992, not long after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and their independence. To date, however, only Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have hosted Indonesian embassies in their capitals. The Indonesian embassies in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Iran are accredited to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan, respectively.

On the economic front, according to the ASEAN statistics database, total two-way trade between Indonesia and the Central Asian countries in 2023 amounted to around $498 million, or less than 15 percent of that between Indonesia and Russia. Kazakhstan was the largest Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) contributor to Indonesia from Central Asia in 2022, with a value of only $190,000. The absence of direct flights and logistics cooperation agreements has become one of the main obstacles to deepening trade and investment relations.

On the cultural front, the number of tourist arrivals from Central Asian countries to Indonesia in 2022 sat at around 4,400 – a significant increase from the 725 arrivals of 2021. This number, however, is low compared to tourist arrivals from China and Russia, for example, which stood at around 144,000 and 74,000 in 2022, respectively. While the current outlook of Indonesia-Central Asian countries’ cooperation in politics, economy, and socio-cultural sectors looks less promising, progress has been made in the past decade to strengthen both sides’ relations. Exchange of high-level visits by the government and parliaments have taken place to better understand each other’s policy priorities. The last visit by an Indonesian head of state to Central Asia was in 2013 when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan have also supported Indonesia’s candidacy at international fora, such as the International Maritime Organization, UNESCAP, and UNECOSOC.

Regarding trade and investment, several memorandums of understanding (MoUs) were signed between the private sectors of both sides, such as an MoU for cooperation between the Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Indonesia and Kazakhstan in 2013. Both sides also shared economic potentials on commodities such as zinc, iron and steel, machinery, appliances, and coffee. In the socio-cultural sector, students from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have participated in Indonesian scholarship programs to learn the Indonesian language and culture since 2015. Indonesia has also organized field trips for ten Uzbek and two Kyrgyz travel agencies in 2019 to Bali to encourage more tourist arrivals from both countries.

Considering the progress in both sides’ relations and the potential for stronger economic, socio-cultural, and political cooperation between Indonesia and the Central Asian countries, the Indonesian government could consider taking several steps. A first step would be speeding up consultations for an Air Transport Agreement with Central Asian countries that would allow for direct flights. For example, Kazakhstan, as the largest FDI contributor from Central Asia to Indonesia, already has direct flights to Malaysia and Thailand. The successful conclusion of a similar agreement with Uzbekistan, which allowed for the establishment of direct Tashkent-Jakarta flights in 2019 and better contacts between businessmen on both sides, could serve as a good benchmark. The convening of the first Indonesia-South and Central Asia (INASCA) Business Forum in October 2024 also serves as a timely initiative to foster collaborations between both sides’ businesses. 

Second, in the socio-cultural realm, the convening of joint sports events, such as the Pencak Silat (Indonesia’s martial art) Competition held in collaboration with a sports federation in Uzbekistan in 2019, which attracted around 300 participants from all Central Asian countries, could be something to replicate in the future to introduce Indonesian culture. 

Lastly, in the political sector, both Central Asian and Southeast Asian countries grapple with the influence of major powers such as Russia and China. Hence, closer engagements between the states of Central Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in which Indonesia plays a key role, could be fostered to allow for the sharing of experiences in navigating the current great-power rivalries.

While there remain challenges in Indonesia-Central Asian countries relations mainly due to geographic distance and weak connectivity, with good political will, both sides could tap into a stronger partnership that will considerably benefit their people and business communities.

Guest Author

Jeniar Nelsus Mooy

Jeniar Nelsus Mooy is an external relations officer at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretariat in Jakarta. 

Previously, she pursued her Master of Arts in Development Studies at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom (UK), with a scholarship from the UK government. She has 5+ years of work experience in the field of international affairs, development cooperation and project management. Prior to working at the ASEAN Secretariat, she was a programme support officer at the ASEAN Foundation, where she assisted in the implementation of capacity-building projects for youths in ten Southeast Asian countries. Her main interests are in Southeast Asia, Indonesian foreign policy, and Indonesia's development cooperation.