Indonesia needs China more than China needs Indonesia: Jakarta Post columnist

In his commentary, the writer urges critics of Indonesia's developing ties with China to be more realistic and pragmatic in assessing the relationship.

China's Premier Li Keqiang (right) walks next to Indonesia's President Joko Widodo as they review presidential guards at the presidential palace in Bogor on May 7, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and the hostile attitude of many Indonesians, especially politicians, to economic relations between Indonesia and China, came to my mind after listening to the views of three internationally recognised scholars and outstanding veteran Asean diplomats.

We must understand that China's economy is so gigantic that 100 countries, including Indonesia, have to accept the fact that China has become their most important economic partner.

Let me make it simple: No matter how strategic Indonesia's position may be on the globe - we are always proud of our strategic geographical position - for China, we are just another important trading partner.

In less than two decades China will take over the US' position as the world's largest economy.

The relations between China and the US will continue to worsen, although a total trade war is unlikely, the impact on the world would be too devastating.

Militarily, it will also be very difficult for the US to maintain its hegemony.

The unpredictable US President Donald Trump will become a disruptive factor, because his eccentric leadership appears not that different from former Libyan leader, the late Muammar Gadaffi or former Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Prof Kishore Mahbubani and Prof Tommy Koh warned that Asean, of which Indonesia is the de facto leader, will go through a very dangerous period in the next 10 years.

Mahbubani talked about China's rising power while the US declines, and there is a common sentiment across the board that China is a serious threat to the US.

Koh pointed out that the situation in the South China Sea will deteriorate and China will become more assertive.

Former foreign minister Marty Natalegawa urged Indonesia to step up its leadership in Asean in navigating the difficult course.

There can be no changing the balance of power, only the dynamics of power, he said.

Indonesia needs to boost its diplomatic agility.

There is no point in trying to contain China, but rather to introduce different dynamics, in order to create an equilibrium.

The question is how can Indonesia take a leading role during Asean's navigation when internally many Indonesians still think that Indonesia is so important to China that it would not dare to confront us?

Baseless chauvinistic pride and a false sense that we are a great nation has often and will continue to trouble us when we are not ready to accept our position.

We, Indonesians, should realise that China is much more important to us than we are to them, although we often believe the opposite.

China will soon become the world's largest Official Development Assistance (ODA) provider and there is almost no chance of reducing the flow of Chinese exports and investment.

China appears threatening because its military expenditure continues to rise in line with its rapidly growing GDP.

Opponents have strongly criticised President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo for issuing Presidential Regulation No. 20/2018 on foreign workers.

The critics argue the new policy will trigger an influx of foreign workers into Indonesia. Tens of thousands of unskilled Chinese labourers now are working, they claim, in China-funded projects, many of them turn-key contracts.

The critics have a point, but they do not see the bigger picture.

The ghost of communism continues to haunt Indonesia with many people branded communists, including Jokowi himself.

Admit it or not, this often refers to the Chinese Communist Party (CPP), even though China has now become the world's largest promoter of the free-market principle.

Let us not forget that all major political parties, including Gerindra and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), have good relations with the CPP.

For some reason, the horrors of the 1998 May riots suddenly spring to mind.

Thousands of Indonesians were burned to death in Jakarta just days before the fall of then-president Soeharto on May 21, 1998.

Hundreds of Indonesians of Chinese descent were sexually assaulted and raped at that time. Even now we pretend that nothing happened 20 years ago.

Chinese officials in their private conversations often express their fear that anti-Chinese sentiments will erupt from time to time in Indonesia. They will be made a scapegoat for everything.

Similar concerns are also often raised by ordinary Chinese people. Millions of them visit Indonesia as tourists, and we should not forget many of them still remember the 1998 tragedy.

Premier Li, who along with President Xi Jinping won another five-year mandate in March last year, is on a three-day state visit to Indonesia until Tuesday.

Later, Li will depart for Japan for a much-awaited trilateral summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

The official purpose of the premier's visit is to commemorate the Indonesia-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

The two countries' diplomatic relations were only restored on Aug 8, 1990, when then-premier Li Peng met with Soeharto in Jakarta.

Jakarta abruptly severed ties with Beijing, after Indonesia accused China of masterminding the (alleged) Sept. 30, 1965, coup attempt, which Beijing totally denied.

In his meeting with Jokowi, Li will reportedly raise his concerns over the slow development of the 142.3-kilometer Jakarta-Bandung railway project.

China and Indonesia signed the contract for this on Oct 16, 2016, after Japan lost the project to China.

Initially its cost was US$5.1 billion (S$6.81 billion), but has since risen to US$5.9 billion as a result of various technicalities, including land-acquisition complications.

It appears unlikely the October 2020 deadline for finishing the project will be met.

Again, we must realise that Indonesia needs China more than they need us. So behave yourself and accommodate yourself in accordance with your position.

Our relationship with China is based on equality and mutual benefit, but please accept reality, at least for a while.

Welcome to Jakarta, Premier Li.

The writer is Managing Editor with The Jakarta Post. The paper is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.

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