Authors: Zhou Dong-chen & Muhammad Raihan Ronodipuro
At the invitation of Chinese military commission, Indonesian Minister of Defense Prabowo Subianto made a working visit to Beijing during December 17-19. It is clear that the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries has maintained good momentum, as Chinese military leaders expressed that the Chinese and Indonesian militaries should implement their consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries, explore deepening cooperation in various areas, promote the two sides’ comprehensive strategic partnership and benefit the two countries and the region. Echoing his Chinese counterpart’s remarks, Prabowo highlighted the necessity of enhancing regular contacts and dialogues between the two militaries in order to jointly safeguard regional peace.
Though having been partners in modernizing Indonesian weaponry system, this is the first high-level visit to China by Indonesian Defense Minister with a view to discussing the efforts to further enhance cooperation in defense of the two countries. Yet, the rapidly growing power of China has constituted one of the most strategic dimensions in East Asia and beyond. For realist view, it represents a key driver of change in the dynamics of major power relations and will have significant impacts on the Asian-Pacific since the end of the WWII. True, the rise of China, even though it is claimed the peaceful rise, has become a dominant discourse within and outside public circles as well. For Indonesia which is the largest country in Southeast Asia and had complicated relations with China until the early 1990s, the rise of China unexceptionally presents an opportunity and challenge. Since normal relations between Beijing and Jakarta were restored less than three decades, Indonesia’s response to the rise of China is still evolving. As scholar Rizal Sukma observed that while recent developments suggest a marked improvement in bilateral relations, Indonesia’s policy of re-engagement towards China should also be perceived from the complex relationship of history, the primacy of domestic politics and the imperative of regional considerations.
Given this, the study argues that Indonesia’s policy towards China continues to reflect a degree of ambiguity and suspicion as well. On the one hand, Indonesia is sure to take the benefits of having good relations with China and begins to demonstrate increasing comfort in managing the bilateral relations with the rising economic giant. On the other hand, Indonesia remains ambiguous of China’s long-term goal and intentions in the region. This mentality has surely led Indonesia to pursue a policy of re-engagement characterized by a mixture of cooperative and suspicious approaches in its response to the rise of China.
There are several reasons to endorse the argument that China’s relations with Indonesia should be moving cautiously and attentively. First of all, since China and Indonesia shared modern sacrifices imposed by imperialist powers of Europe and Japan, it did help promote the reciprocal recognition of each other in 1950; yet it unnecessarily means that their relations have proceeded steadily. In effect it is quite opposite as their relations were subject to pressures stemming from each domestic concerns, particularly for the perceptions among the public and the elite have served as the key context within which Jakarta’s policy towards Beijing has been formulated and carried out. For example, in the early 1960s, attempts by both parties to forge a radical political alignment, primarily in terms of a united front against the West, failed to withstand the pressure emanating from Indonesia’s domestic politics, which was patently manipulated by the West. As a result, the Beijing-Jakarta axis was brutally brought to an end in 1965, followed by the suspension of their normal relations for more than 20 years.
Secondly, it is true that both China and Indonesia can’t ignore each other in a long run, it is because China has rapidly increased its power and influence since the 1980s while Indonesia as the largest country in the Southeast Asia has also aspired to be a regional power. In light of the vicissitude of the world politics, the two countries began to rethink of their relations in a more realist perspective. Yet, even during the 1980s, the anti-communist leadership of Indonesia was not moved by what China had already adopted the reform and openness policy. The dynamics of Indonesian politics which required the preservation and the enforcement of anti-communist ideology as the basis of regime legitimacy, arduously carried out the predominance of domestic political interests over other necessary concerns in Indonesia’s foreign policy. Only by 1990, did the two countries finally agree to resume direct trade and soon restored diplomacy. Even though, the restoration of normal relations did not improve substantially. Suspicions and sensitivity continued to characterize Jakarta’s attitude towards Beijing. The event in 1994 once again verifies this point when a labor unrest soon flared into an anti-Chinese riot in Sumatra. China’s official concerns were not only rejected but also accused of flagrant interfering in Indonesia’s internal affairs. As for China, the episode is a reflection of its lack of understanding in Beijing on Indonesia’s sensitivity on issues involving the ethnic Chinese minority in the country.
Thirdly, from the very beginning since 1990 when both countries resumed their relations, still Indonesia preferred dealing with China within a multilateral framework, either through ASEAN or the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). It is argued that ASEAN has been regarded in Jakarta as likely to be a more effective instrument for managing relations with a China regarded with apprehension and some foreboding. Similarly, the ARF has been taken by many Indonesian elites as a regime not only to engage China regionally but also to secure Beijing’s respect for international norms of inter-state relations. Prior to early 1998, Indonesia had begun to promote the economic dimension of bilateral relations with China. Since then, the contacts in overall terms have increased rapidly and remarkably. It is said that the great efforts to promote trade between the two sides since 1990 were obstructed by the financial crisis in 1997, yet, ironically it was the political implications of the 1997 financial crisis in Indonesia that opened up the opportunity for a much more cordial relationship between Indonesia and China to develop. For sure, the financial crisis which brought the Suharto regime from power served as a defining moment in bilateral relations of the two countries as the collapse of Suharto’s regime was followed in 1998. To certain extent, during the after the financial crisis, the ruling elites of the two sides did manage the issue well and did not let the long issue of Chinese diaspora in Indonesia out of control. Due to this, since 1998, the real improvement in the bilateral relations has become more evident, and the scope of bilateral cooperation has been expanding to include cooperation on areas such as security and defense. In 2005, China and Indonesia further established a strategic partnership which covered all the key areas such as security and defense technology cooperation. In addition, China’s image as a responsible and benevolent major power have also received further boost during the Tsunami disaster that struck Indonesia and other Indian Ocean countries in 2004.
Yet, as the past lessons have indicated that despite obvious improvements in bilateral relations, Indonesia and China are not immune from issues. Three issues might affect how Indonesia-China relations would evolve in the future. First, internationally Indonesia’s elite remain uncertain regarding China’s role and long-term intentions in East Asia. In this context, they are easy to follow the realism that a rising major power with an ancient pride aims to be a dominant power in the region would certainly revive Indonesia’s sensitivity. Although some of Indonesians have begun to display their willingness to trust China, but that trust takes time. A public opinion poll conducted by the Lowy Institute in 2006, for example, reveals that Indonesians trust Japan (76%) more than China (59%). For China to be fully trusted, it needs to consistently pursue a good neighbor policy towards Southeast Asia. Second, domestically, there is still the issue regarding the public perceptions of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese. If there is a resurgence of anti-Chinese feeling in Indonesia, and if the issue of the ethnic Chinese minority once again becomes a political victim in Indonesia, then Indonesia-China bilateral relations is sure to be affected adversely. Due to this, both sides need to learn how to avoid their previous mistakes in the new era.
China and Indonesia have learned the lessons from the past. As a result, the bilateral relations have been improved over the last two ten years in terms of maturity and stability. In spite of this, the reality still requires the ability of the two countries to steer in the course cautiously and attentively.