The Garuda and the Dragon

The Garuda and the Dragon
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There was a lot of backslapping and talk of mutual respect when Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited Indonesia last month.

In recognizing each other as great Asian nations, China and Indonesia placed in context a history of sometimes turbulent relations stretching back to 1950. It might be useful to see the period since then as the sum of several phases: 17+23+8+13.

Jakarta was the first Southeast Asian capital to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing, in July 1950. However, just 17 years later, in October 1967, Indonesia froze ties with Communist China, driven to desperation by its support for the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia and the largely ethnic Chinese Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Under former President Suharto, who came to power in an anti-communist coup that took many ethnic Chinese lives, Indonesia entered a viscerally anti-communist phase that translated into hostility toward the Chinese at home and China abroad.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, center, reacts as the audience applaud after delivering a speech before Indonesia Council of World Affairs (ICWA) in Jakarta, Indonesia on April 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Indonesia’s anti-communist stance played an important role in cementing pro-Western solidarity in Southeast Asia during the cold war, when China was on the opposing side, at least until the dramatic Sino-American detente of 1972.

It took 23 years, during which Deng Xiaoping’s accession to power had begun to change China’s domestic system, for Sino-Indonesian relations to be resumed, in August 1990.

Yet even the restoration of ties did not erase Indonesia’s wariness of China. This hesitancy was partly mutual. Beijing expressed concern over the anti-Chinese riots in Medan in April 1994, which provided an uncomfortable reminder of the ethnic factor that had disrupted state-to-state ties in the 1960s.

The defining year was 1998, eight years after the restoration of diplomatic ties. What helped change the mood in Jakarta was the onset of democracy in Indonesia following Suharto’s downfall in the midst of the Asian financial crisis; and China’s nuanced reaction to the May 1998 anti-Chinese violence that marked Suharto’s decline.

Indonesians took heart from former Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s categorical pledge that China would “never try to use people of Chinese origin living in Indonesia to seek political or economic gain there.”

For Indonesia’s part, the swift consolidation of democracy played a crucial role in normalizing the situation of the Chinese in Indonesia. China naturally welcomed this. On the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations last year, the lost years between 1965 and 1998 appeared remote, while the 12 years since 1998 loomed large for the people of both countries. .

A year on from the anniversary — 13 years from 1998 — the mood remains upbeat. Wen’s visit underscores that mood. Sino-Indonesian economic relations are booming. In 2010, two-way trade approached $43 billion, making China one of Indonesia’s largest trading partners. China-Indonesia trade is already the largest in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc, and the two countries are targeting $80 billion in trade by 2015.

During Wen’s visit, Beijing announced that it would provide $1 billion in preferential export buyers’ credit and $8 billion of commercial funding to help Indonesia develop its infrastructure and priority industries.

More should be done to redress Indonesia’s negative trade balance with China. This needs to be rectified so that the economic relationship can be more sustainable in the long run.

In terms of the economic dimension, Indonesia and China agreed on a strategic partnership in April 2005. Underlying the partnership is the recognition that the two countries can complement each other to achieve national ends while contributing to regional and global outcomes.

These national ends go to the heart of China and Indonesia, two sprawling, multiethnic nations that need to protect their unity. As the scholar Rosita Dellios writes in a paper, internal stability in an age of globalization is served best through regional integration based on common economic and cultural interests.

She examines a Buddhist golden age of Sino-Javanese relations in the seventh century to argue that “the dharma of the present diplomatic age would require an internal respect for difference within the national identity. … Unless internal divisions are healed, or at least better managed, external relations are unlikely to escape the manipulative forces of domestic politics.”

Sino-Indonesian relations are a case in point.

The partnership is a realistic one today also because, in terms of both population and territory, Indonesia and China are the largest nations in their neighborhoods: Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. These are tough neighborhoods — witness the challenges posed by North Korea and Burma to the evolution of a smooth regional order.

Of course, neither Indonesia nor China should, or can, exercise regional power exclusively. Asean remains Jakarta’s preferred choice, while Beijing uses its influence through the Asean+3 and East Asian Summit processes. In their different but overlapping ways, though, each country is a nodal power: Regional security cannot be imagined without it. Their strategic partnership makes a great deal of common sense.

Globally, Indonesia recognizes China’s position in the pecking order. China has overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. The Chinese military, which is equipped with intercontinental ballistic missiles, has a budget that all nations are taking seriously.

By the same token, China must recognize that Indonesia, which, like it, is a member of the G-20, is a rising power in Southeast Asia, one of the front-line regions of the world.

In recent years, the region has made the headlines for the wrong reasons, such as terrorism and natural calamities. But Southeast Asia is critical to the wider Asian story, in which China will play the leading role. By acting together, Indonesia and China can contribute to the arrival of the Asian century. Their strategic partnership is crucial for pan-Asian peace, stability and prosperity.

Again, this pan-Asian peace should not and cannot exclude extraregional but important powers such as the United States and Russia. However, it is time that Asians played a substantial role in scripting the narrative of their continent.

Wen touched on some of these issues when he noted that China valued Indonesia’s role in regional and international affairs and was ready to work with it to promote the development of trade and economic relations between China and Asean.

Wen’s visit was part of a flurry of international meetings in Indonesia, including a conference of the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the Asean-European Union Business Summit and the 18th Asean Summit itself.

These talks reflect Indonesia’s growing international profile. Against this background, Wen’s visit was a good opportunity for China and Indonesia to reaffirm their commitment to the Asian century. The fortunes of their millions depend on the final realization of what until now has been the Asian dream.

Anindya Novyan Bakrie is vice chairman of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin), CEO of Bakrie Telecom and chairman of Viva Media Group.

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