Can China and Indonesia Forge Stronger Counterterrorism Collaboration?

China’s efforts to foster closer counterterrorism collaboration with China may be hampered by two crucial issues. Credit: Florence Lo/ Reuters.


In a significant stride towards bolstering regional security, government representatives from both China and Indonesia convened in Beijing to chart a path of cooperation in combating terrorism.

The meeting, held in March 2024, saw Wang Xiaohong, China’s Minister of Public Security, engage Mohammed Rycko Amelza Dahniel, the Head of Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Terorisme (Indonesia’s National Counter Terrorism Agency – BNPT).

The primary agenda of the gathering was to fortify collaborative mechanisms and capabilities in counterterrorism efforts. Both sides expressed a mutual commitment to intensify coordination and communication on international counterterrorism issues, while also enhancing practical cooperation in law enforcement. Wang Xiaohong reiterated China’s readiness to align with Indonesia in implementing crucial agreements reached by their leaders, underscoring the robust momentum in their bilateral relations.

Not the First Time

This recent engagement builds on a history of cooperative endeavors. In 2014, the inauguration of counterterrorism cooperation was marked by the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between BNPT and China’s Ministry of Public Security in Beijing.

Several initiatives were undertaken to enhance collaboration in the following years. Two crucial meetings must be taken into account: the International Meeting on Counter-Terrorism in Bali in 2016 and the Sub-Regional Meeting on Foreign Terrorist Fighters and Cross Border Terrorism in Manado in 2017. These meetings aimed at addressing regional terrorism threats, including those in Marawi, South Philippines, which shook the region during this period.

In these meetings, Indonesia had also proposed strengthening cooperation with China in exchanging information and data on terrorism, deradicalization efforts, and combating terrorist financing through cyber-technology.

In 2017, the Workshop on Counter-Terrorism between China and Its Neighboring Countries further provided a platform for exchanging information. Indonesia was represented by officials from the Ministries of Law and Human Rights as well as Foreign Affairs.

Additionally, in the same year, the 6th Meeting of the Bilateral Dialogue Between the State Councilor of China and the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs of Indonesia also discussed cooperation plans on counterterrorism under the auspices of the Indonesia-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Action.

In late 2023, the two countries further reinforced their counterterrorism collaboration through the signing of an MoU on strategic partnership aimed at promoting regional peace and security. It was emphasized that China sees Indonesia as a country with a  positive track record in counterterrorism that has also been recognized by several countries as well as the United Nations.


Amid the strides in cooperative counter-terrorism efforts between China and Indonesia, several significant challenges loom large.

While the cooperative efforts between the two nations have progressed, a potential mismatch arises between China’s and Indonesia’s respective definitions of terrorism. The definition and parameters of terrorism on China’s side are further complicated by its treatment of the Uyghurs.

The primary challenge stems from counterterrorism being utilized as a narrative to obscure China’s harsh policies towards the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang.

Despite its commitment in counterterrorism efforts, China’s approach to handling the Uyghurs presents a multifaceted narrative. Reports have surfaced suggesting that China’s efforts may serve as a veneer to obscure its controversial policies towards these minority groups.

Beijing has faced substantial criticism for its treatment of Uyghur Muslims, including allegations of extensive human rights violations such as mass detentions, surveillance and forced labor. While China portrays these actions as counterterrorism measures aimed at combating extremism, international observers interpret them predominantly as human rights abuses.

Of particular concern are reports indicating that China orchestrates meticulously curated subsidized tours for Indonesian scholars, religious leaders, journalists and other influential figures. These tours purportedly offer a carefully tailored glimpse into specific facets of China’s management of ethnic and religious minorities, presenting a narrative that aligns closely with the Chinese government’s agenda. Participants of these tours reportedly receive remuneration for their time and involvement, raising questions about the authenticity and impartiality of their observations.

The alleged aim of these tours appears to be twofold: to showcase a favorable image of China’s approach to handling its minority populations and to cultivate support and positive perceptions among influential individuals in Indonesia. By carefully controlling the narrative and selectively presenting aspects of its policies and practices, China seeks to shape external perceptions and garner support for its actions, particularly in regions where concerns over human rights and religious freedoms resonate deeply.

However, the existence of these paid tours adds a layer of complexity to the cooperative efforts between China and Indonesia in combating terrorism. While both nations share common interests in addressing security threats and promoting stability, the divergent perspectives on the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities highlight the challenges inherent in navigating diplomatic relations.

For Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim nation, navigating cooperation with China in counterterrorism while concurrently addressing concerns over human rights and religious freedoms poses a nuanced diplomatic challenge. The juxtaposition of these divergent perspectives underscores the complexity of defining terrorism within the context of China’s policies and actions, complicating such collaborative efforts.

Secondly, the South China Sea dispute stands as a significant obstacle to a more effective cooperation between China and Indonesia. The contentious territorial disputes in the South China Sea have long been a source of tension between China and various Southeast Asian nations, including Indonesia, which asserts its sovereignty over parts of the region. China’s expansive claims and assertive actions, such as maritime patrols and the construction of artificial islands, have exacerbated these tensions, fueling concerns over regional stability and maritime security.

The escalating tensions in the South China Sea create a complex backdrop of geopolitical mistrust that could potentially impede bilateral cooperation on counterterrorism initiatives. As both nations strive to address shared security challenges and combat terrorism effectively, the mistrust and suspicion engendered by the South China Sea dispute may hinder the exchange of crucial intelligence, coordination on security measures and the implementation of joint initiatives aimed at countering terrorist threats in the region.

The fear of intelligence data being exploited for ulterior motives adds another layer of complexity to the cooperation between China and Indonesia in counterterrorism efforts. Indonesia may be apprehensive about sharing sensitive intelligence with China, fearing that it could be utilized to further China’s strategic interests, including its aggressive actions in the South China Sea.

Recent incidents, such as the reported cyber-theft of strategic data from ASEAN and its member states, underscore these concerns. Chinese government-linked hackers were purported to have stolen gigabytes of data, including email correspondence, from the ASEAN Secretariat and contacts in member states in 2022. While the exact nature of the stolen information remains undisclosed, it has been suggested that it may have included strategic data related to the South China Sea disputes.

This revelation raises legitimate concerns about the potential misuse of intelligence-sharing mechanisms for geopolitical purposes. For Indonesia, the prospect of sharing any sensitive information with China, including counterterrorism purposes, becomes fraught with uncertainty and risk. There is a justified fear that intelligence data provided to China could be exploited to advance its maritime ambitions and assertive actions in the South China Sea, rather than solely focusing on combating terrorism.

The concerns regarding intelligence sharing with China extend beyond the South China Sea. China’s state-sponsored hackers are known to be highly active in the Southeast Asian region, targeting government and military entities in pursuit of strategic objectives.

Government and military units in Southeast Asian countries have become common targets for China’s hackers in recent years. In the second half of 2022 alone, there was a 20% increase in China-linked cyberattacks against Southeast Asian countries compared to the same period in 2021. These cyber intrusion campaigns are believed to serve the strategic interests of the Chinese government, including gathering intelligence on projects related to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).


Amid the complex challenges in China-Indonesia counterterrorism cooperation, proactive steps are crucial. Firstly, prioritizing transparency and mutual trust in intelligence-sharing mechanisms is essential, with clear protocols needed to address Indonesia’s concerns about potential misuse of shared intelligence.

Additionally, to enhance cooperation, China and Indonesia must address complexities surrounding the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, particularly the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. Transparent dialogue is key to resolving disparities in their definitions of terrorism and minority treatment, with China urged to acknowledge and address international concerns regarding its policies in Xinjiang.

Refraining from using counterterrorism to justify harsh measures against the Uyghurs, prioritizing respect for fundamental rights and exploring alternative approaches, are imperative. Indonesia, while embarking on counterterrorism efforts with China, must still uphold its commitment to human rights, advocating for minority rights domestically and internationally.

Second, resolving underlying tensions, especially the South China Sea dispute, is vital for seamless cooperation. Diplomatic dialogue and confidence-building measures can mitigate mistrust, reaffirming commitments to international law and regional stability.

Bolstering cybersecurity cooperation to counter state-sponsored cyber activities is also imperative, collectively addressing cyber threats to safeguard critical infrastructure and information.

In conclusion, concerted efforts in transparency, trust-building and cybersecurity cooperation are crucial for effective counter-terrorism collaboration, advancing peace and security in the region.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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