Bilateral relations between Indonesia and Japan have recently become marred by unabashed exchanges of threats between government officials.
Rudi Rubiandini, the newly appointed deputy energy and mineral resources minister, said Japan had sent a letter stating that it would ban photocopy paper imports from Indonesia should the country go ahead and tax metal ore exports.
Japan, the world’s second-largest nickel consumer, previously threatened to file a complaint with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in response to new changes in Indonesia’s mineral trade policy.
On May 6, the government issued a regulation that introduced tougher requirements on the exportation of 65 types of raw minerals – excluding coal – and imposed a 20 percent export tax. The regulation is deemed necessary to curb overexploitation of resources ahead of the full implementation of a ban on raw mineral exports in 2014 as demanded by 2009 Minerals and Coal Mining Law.
The government has encouraged companies to either build smelters, either individually or through joint ventures, or make other plans for processing raw minerals.
In response to Japan’s threat of barring photocopy paper imports, Rudi said Indonesia could easily retaliate by cutting supplies of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Japan.
According to ministry data, last year, Indonesia produced 362 LNG cargoes. Japan was the largest buyer, purchasing 172 cargoes, followed by Korea with 68 cargoes, the US (55), China (35) and Taiwan (32).
Other data show that in the first four months of this year, Indonesia exported 2.72 million tonnes of gas worth $2.43 billion or 18.65 percent less than the $2.99 billion in the same period last year.
Based on trade ministry data, between January and April 2012, Indonesia exported more than 173 tonnes of photocopy paper to Japan. Total exports were valued at $207.07 million, up 15.52 percent compared to the same period last year.
Trade Ministry director general for foreign trade Deddy Saleh said on Friday that the ministry had not decided to take any action in response to the photocopy paper threat.
“Japan has not filed an official complaint with us. So we are just going to wait and see,” Deddy said.
Experts say that Japan’s desperate response to the new Indonesian policy was an indication of Japan’s high dependence on raw materials to sustain both exports and the lifestyles of Japanese people.
Toshio Nakamura, the general manager of stainless raw materials at Mitsui & Co., was quoted by Bloomberg news service recently as saying that no other countries could immediately replace Indonesia in terms of raw material supplies.
Takayuki Ueda, the director general of the manufacturing industries bureau of Japan’s trade ministry, said that Japan would prefer to negotiate a solution to prevent a full ban on mineral exports.
However, he said, Japan might file an objection with the WTO should Indonesia proceed with a complete ban.
Utama Kajo, head of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s (Kadin) standing committee on investment, human resource development and small and medium enterprises, said he was not worried that the rift would affect other sectors in the trade relations between the two countries.
“This is only a small-scale argument. It will not matter much if Japan stops photocopy paper exports because Indonesia can send it elsewhere, for example, to China or South America,” he said.
Utama suggested that Japan build smelters in Indonesia to process metal ore. Furthermore, he reminded the Indonesian government to think twice before making threats about cutting off the gas supply as it would only harm Indonesia.
“We can’t just cut off the supply because the countries have signed long-term contracts. We would risk being reported to the WTO,” he said.
Avilian, an economist at the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance (Indef) who is also a commissioner at one of the country’s biggest lenders, Bank BRI, said she doubted that the bickering between state officials would damage the long standing relations between Indonesia and Japan.
“We have had good relations so far. This is a small problem and can be addressed by the officials. Indonesia and Japan need each other,” she said.