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Southeast Asia

China’s relations with Indonesia requires more cautious moves

photo: ANTARA

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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.

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Southeast Asia

Application of PLTU Batubara in the Perspective of Kalimantan people

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Photo: Wikipedia

Indonesia is one of the largest coal producers and exporters in the world. Since 2005, there have been many small pockets of coal reserved on the islands of Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Papua. This makes Indonesia increasingly utilize all natural resources that have existed in the ancestral lands to make coal energy sources as a Steam Power Plant (PLTU) in addition of abundance basic materials, this coal-based PLTU is considered to have better efficiency in terms of price. Cheaper and faster in process compared to other energy sources.

Behind the efficiency of coal, which is used as the main fuel, there is a process that is considered ineffective for local residents and the surrounding environment, because in PLTU, coal is burned to take heat and steam, so it can release combustion residue in the air. From this combustion residue, it will spread to aquatic plants or enter the human lungs. Coal is burned to take heat and its steam releases combustion residue in the air. The remainder of this combustion will spread to aquatic plants or enter human lungs.

In the theory, all of this has been filtered so that the smoke that comes out is not dangerous, but the reality can be different from the facts in the field.

Inside the PLTU smoke, there are pollutants which contain dangerous compounds such as mercury and other compounds such as arsenic, lead, PM 10, sox and PM 2.5. These particles stay in the air for a long time and can fly hundreds of kilometers. If humans are exposed to mercury or pm 2.5 continually, there will be asthma, respiratory infections, lung cancer and even damage to the brain, kidneys and heart. It is clear that the air environment and settlements are not good for local residents due to the danger of compound content that will threaten the health of the surrounding community, especially since the PLTU distance from residents’ settlements is not a safe distance. This is evidenced by the case that occurred in November 2018, Sangah Sangah village Kutai Kartanegara, East Kalimantan, experienced 5 houses destroyed, 11 others were damaged and the main road collapsed due to mining activities that were too close to public facilities and settlements.  

Kalimantan, Borneo, some of farmers in the suburbs of Samarinda Timur have lived for 20 years as neighbors that  are very close to the coal mines in this village. Meanwhile, according to the regulations of the minister of environment and regional regulations Kutai Kartanegara the minimum distance between mining activities and settlements is 500 M but in fact, all of the regulations are not applied. While the existence of a coal-fired PLTU has made clean water is only a history. The residents stated that they only relied on rainwater and water from the emblem that brought along the silt Previously, before there was a coal mine, the rice fields were not damaged, the environment was beautiful and safe, but the situation drastically changed since the coal power plant, residents’ crops such as rice fields and so on were exposed to mud so that they produced plants that were not of the same quality as before.

This is very unfortunate because in 1991 this village was designated as a village of rice barns with a production of 2600 tons of unhulled rice in every harvest time. Disappointment and despair began to appear on the faces of the villagers who felt the problems that were increasingly choking local residents, not only polemic about the environment and plants. The existence of a coal company and a PLTU have also claimed the lives of several villagers due to the reclamation of coal mines.

The local community certainly did not remain silent, so they filed a protest by one of the residents of Nyoman Derman from Kertabuana Village, Kutai Kertanegara Regency. Nyoman intercepted heavy equipment but was instead arrested and given a 3-month prison sentence on the grounds of disrupting company operations. When the community takes an active role to defend and protect all assets owned by the government, the government does not protect. On the contrary, this is not in accordance with the constitution of our country which upholds human rights which are emphasized in the 1945 Constitution in article 27 to article 34 of the 1945 Constitution which regulates Human Rights.

The problems do not end with environmental problems but also at the same time claiming the lives of many local residents. The excavation of ex-coal mining holes resulted in many human lives being lost, among others in 2011-2018 in East Kalimantan as a result of the mining excavation hole itself. At least, it has been claimed the lives of as many as 39 people. Between 2014-2018 nationally, there were 115 people who died as a result of mining holes

This can’t be underestimated into an ordinary problem caused by the longer, it continues to claim casualties due to 3,500 former mine pits that have not been properly filled so that it continues.

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Southeast Asia

The Impacts of the Covid-19 on Vietnam’s Workforce

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By March 2021, Vietnam has experienced 3 phases of the Covid-19 pandemic (phase 1: from March to April 2020; phase 2: from July to September 2020; phase 3: from January to March 2021), with 2,575 infected cases, 302 cases undergoing treatment, 2,234 recovered cases and 35 deaths. Similar to many other countries in the world, Vietnam has suffered serious impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic in all fields: economy, politics, culture, social life, yet the most direct influences were on Vietnamese workforce.

Major impacts that the Covid-19 epidemic has exerted on the Vietnamese workforce can be summarized as follows:

First, the impacts on the employees’ job

This was one of the basic and direct dominant impacts over others. According to the Report of the General Statistics Office of Vietnam (GSO), due to the sudden fall in the labor force in the2nd quarter, the general number of employees (aged 15 and above) in the economy in 2020 sharply decreasedin comparison to that in 2019. The number of working employees aged 15 and abovewas53.4 million people (a decrease of 1.3 million people compared to that in 2019 – arespective decrease of 2.36%). A comparison of the decrease in the number of labor force between 2019 and 2020 is shown in Figure (1). This demonstrated an obvious drop in the number of jobsfor Vietnamese workforce under the impacts of Covid-19 pandemic.

Figure 1: Labor force growth/decrease rate

Unit: %

(Source: GSO)

The Covid-19 pandemic did not only deprive many workers of opportunities for formal employment, but also left them inunemployed. To be specific: generally in 2020, the number of under-employed workers was roughly 1.2 million, an increase of 456.7 thousand people compared to that in 2019. The underemployment rate in the working age group is 2.51%. (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Number of people and underemployment rate by quarter, 2019-2020

(Source: GSO)

With animproving multilateral diplomacy and expanding international relations, Vietnam now has diplomatic relations with 189 countries and territories around the world,maintains close relations with more than 30 countries and three major countries (China, Russia, India) are comprehensive strategic partners. Economic-trade relations play a key role in the international relations of Vietnam and the country is currently considered an attractive destination for investment and international cooperation in Southeast Asia. As a result, the Covid pandemic has influenced Vietnam’s economic relations with their international partners in both ways. Approximately one third of businesses suffered shortage of input materials; the larger the enterpriseswere, the more serious the shortage was; domestic and foreign consumption markets were narrowed, export orders declined and goods circulation faced various difficulties … Due to theweak financial potentials and liquidity in the business sector, the fact thatthe COVID-19 pandemic spread with complicated progressesresulted in production delays, difficulties in production capital, with 52.8% of businesses experiencing a decline in annual business profits4 in 2020. Therefore, businesses were forced to use redundancy, unpaid job leave, shortened working hours … as temporary solutions to maintain their operation and stability.

However, thanks to proactive and creative countermeasures at all levels and decisive policies to prevent economic slowdown, Vietnam’s economy has developedits ownresilience, gradually resumed its operation under new normal conditions, becoming one of three countries in Asia with positive growth in 2020.Accordingly, the number of unemployed and underemployed workers in the fourth quarter of 2020 witnessed a sharp decrease compared to that in the previous quarters and gradually stabilized.

Secondly, the Covid-19 pandemic affected employees income

Loss of job opportunities, shortened working hours, layoffs, unemployment had direct impacts on employees’ income. According to the Report of the General Statistics Office, compared to that in 2019, the average monthly income of Vietnamese employees in 2020 decreased in all three economic sectors. Specifically: In 2020, the average income of employees was 5.5 million VND, a 2.3% decrease compared to that of 2019 (equivalent to 128 thousand VND less). Income of employees in service sector witnessed the highest decrease of215 thousand VND; followed by those in agriculture, forestry and fisheries, with 156 thousand VND. Employees in industry and construction suffered the lowest decrease, with 100 thousand VND /person/ month. This impact was clearly illustrated in Figure 3 below:

Figure 3: Average income of workers by economic sector, 2019-2020

Unit: million dong

(Source: GSO)

Third, the Covid-19 pandemic directly affected the employeesmental factors

When employment and income are affected, workers’ mental health will be direcly influenced too. To be specific, employees may experience frequent anxiety, pessimism, insecurity and mood swings. Results from a scientific survey showed that: only 8% of office employees and managers suffer from stress and pressure during a pandemic, but up to 86.9% of workers have feelings of anxiety, pessimism, insecurity and mood swings. This impact was most evitable among workers with children (including married or single parents), female workers, and especially female migrant workers with children.

In addition, the Covid-19 crisis created aninconsistent impact on relations among employees’ family. In particular, forsome part of employees, family relationships were greatly improved when members stayed at home and spent more time together; on the other hand, a large part had the opposite experience(more disputes, domestic verbal or behavior abuse), especially forimmigrated workers and female immigrated workers with children. This was an evitable consequence when they worried about their health and future. TheCovid-19 pandemic also increased the risk of gender-based violence. Statistics of the Central Vietnam Women’s Union showed that, during Covid-19social distancing, the number of calls from violence-suffering women to the Association’s hotline increased by 50%; the number of victims receiving rescue assistance and acceptance to the House of Peace also increased by 80% over the same period last year.

Some solutions from the Government and businesses to contribute to overcoming the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic on Vietnamese workforce

Solutions from the Government of Vietnam

Confronting serious impacts of COVID-19 pandemic on the economyoverthree consecutive phases, the Government of Vietnam actively put their focus on administrating and providing methods as well as decisive actions with the mottos: “Fight the pandemic like fighting against enemies”, “Go to each alley, knock on each door andcheck on each person”; and “dual goals” (preventing and combating the pandemics while promoting socio-economic development), “lightning-speed tracking, zoning”, “four On-sitesguidelines”(on-site commands, on-site forces, on-site vehicles and equipments, on-site logistics), withcore focus on the active role of local governments. These directions were supported by all administrative levels, branches, localities and citizens. The Government as well as their organizations called for and mobilized all social resources for the pandemic prevention; citizens and business groups actively joined hands to fight the epidemic despite numerous difficulties. (For example, when the medical lacked espiratory machines, Vingroup immediately produced their own to provide for the country).

Also since then, the Government has quickly introduced monetary, fiscal, and social security policies in order to support businesses and people during the most difficult period of COVID-19 shock. Specifically: a financial package of 180 billion VND to support business; zero-interests loans to pay wages to workers; Social protection package of 61.580 billion VND (for employees who were distanced, delayed or lost their jobs due to post-pandemic impacts); 11.000 million VND of electricity bill discount; bank loans interest rates reduction; 285.000 billion credit package for commercial banks…..These practical guidelines and measures have assisted businesses to overcome difficulties, improved perseverence, gradually normalized or adjusted their production and business plans, enhancing digital transformation and trade promotion… These activitieshave created positive impacts on stabilization of job, incomes, daily necessity and mental health of the workforce.

Second, solutions from businesses and unions

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the enterprise community quickly came up with new directions and solutionsin order tocontinue their operation duringhard time. Approximately two thirds of enterprises have applied at least one of the abovementioned solutions, trying to adapt their production activities to new normal conditions.

Demonstrating the motto“love and support”, many businesses used different combined measures, such as deferred goods payment (used by 33.3% of businesses), shared orders (used 7.9 % of businesses), barter goods (used by 3.8% businesses), customers loans (used by 2.8% of businesses) …

Besides, in order to join hands with businesses in supporting employees, government organizations, especially trade unions, constantly stand out to help workers overcome their difficulties (for example: The Trade Union of Ho Chi Minh City Industrial  -Processing Zone has organized various activities such as visiting, sending gifts, supporting funding and persuading landlords to reduce house rental, especially for female pregnant workers or those nursing a child under 12 months old …)

In general, the Covid-19 pandemic has created great impacts on all aspects of life in Vietnam, especially the workforce – the most vulnerable group facing numerous difficulties so far. However, the Government and people of Vietnam are determined and strictly follow these policies: “Joining hands to protect the workers’ interests and rights, encouraging workers to overcome difficulties together”;targeting at “dual goals” to secure stable jobs and income for employees, supporting post-Covid-19 business recovery. On the spirit of “Employees First”, the government and enterprises are unanimously determined to overcome theevitable challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, to make Vietnam a spotlight in the region and the world in preventing Covid-19 in generaland protecting the legitimate rights of employees in particular.

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Southeast Asia

Why Indonesia is keeping a distance from the Indo-Pacific “Quartet”

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Caption: Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto and Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, along with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi held the 2nd Japan-Indonesia Foreign Affairs and Defense Ministerial Meeting (“2 + 2”). in Tokyo, Japan, March 30, 2021. (Twitter/MofaJapan_jp)

Japan and Indonesia agreed to expand defense cooperation and conduct joint exercises in the South China Sea. Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi stated so after meeting with his Indonesian counterpart Prabowo Subianto. The Indonesian Minister of Defense and Minister of Foreign Affairs are visiting Tokyo for bilateral talks with their Japanese counterparts and to attend the second 2 + 2 ministerial meetings since 2015. It has not been announced when and the specific location for the joint exercise

In October last year, the parties held a naval exercise in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone off the west coast of Natuna Island. Indonesia and China are at odds over the demarcation line of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, so observers believe that holding a new joint exercise there could be considered a provocation to China. Furthermore, Japan can, by all means, emphasize that it is developing military relations with its partners in Southeast Asia in response to China’s increasingly assertive policy in this region.

Japan, along with the United States, Australia and India are part of the “Indo-Pacific quartet”, one of the main regional mechanisms against China. Indonesia is unlikely to par- ticipate in this “quartet” soon, it is difficult to have such a plan at this time.

The reason is simple; the contradictions and frictions between Indonesia and China have not yet reached the point where it takes such clear anti-China move. Otherwise this will undoubtedly have a negative backlash against Beijing, and the disadvantages it causes outweighs the advantages it can take into account. Indonesian leaders understand this very well.

Compared with Vietnam, which has a much more tense relationship with China, however shows no sign of any intention of joining the “quartet”. The members “quartet” themselves have not named specific candidates for the new members of the coalition.

In the short term, There’s no such country that can enter the quartet, although the quartet itself is not always consistent, so it is difficult for Indonesia to enter this anti-China force in the near future. Indonesia is trying to balance relations between China and Japan.

This mere incident cannot be regarded as having a certain symbolic signi cance, or that Indonesia wants to join the anti-China Force with the West. Because Indonesia’s foreign policy has always insisted on seeking a balance between major powers. If it joins the United States and the encirclement of its allies against China, can be said to violate its principle, and it is not a good thing for Indonesia’s national interest in the entire region.

So, Indonesia will still maintain neutrality. China and Indonesia are very intense in the South China Sea. The dispute is an issue of maritime rights and interests in the northern waters of the Natuna Islands. Although Indonesia has long insisted on not recognizing China’s “nine-dash line” proposition and the traditional fishing rights of Chinese fishermen in the waters, it is maintaining the so-called territorial water rights.

Indonesia believes that it could be maintained by its strength. Therefore, on the Natuna Island issue, judging by some signs of Indonesia’s past behavior, it does not want external forces to intervene. All parties must eliminate interference from external forces and focus on the negotiation of “norms” involving the interests of the region, to truly turn the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship, and cooperation.

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