Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Great ASEAN-China Soccer Game

On January 1, 2010, the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area commenced.

Eight years in the making, the free trade area was aimed at synergising the economic development of 11 countries with a total population of 1.9 billion (of course, the Chinese make up more than 60% of this). This makes ACFTA the biggest in the world in terms of population, with the future potential of rivaling the success of NAFTA in North America and the European Union.

The arrival of ACFTA was received with much glee, particularly by the Chinese who for years have prepared themselves for this eventuality. The thought of penetrating newly opened markets in Southeast Asia, filled with dynamic countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore, was indeed a source for much optimism.

The news, however, was not received as well in Indonesia. Fearing the flood of Chinese products to Indonesian markets (this has happened even before the free trade), many have called for a revisiting of the ACFTA Agreement. Some have asked for the Government to delay the commencement of the Agreement in order to negotiate new terms (kinda too late, don't you think). Some have even demanded the government to cancel its participation in the free trade.

Responding to these calls, Government officials have decided that maybe some actions need to be done in order to protect the people. Some are getting together to figure out what had happened, as in, how did the ASEAN-China free trade area happened without the Indonesians (including the officials themselves) knowing anything? Meanwhile, others are proposing ideas to prepare Indonesia for the eventuality of the free trade area.

Prepare Indonesia in facing the free trade area...!? Are we kidding ourselves...? How is it possible that we are trying to prepare ourselves for something that has already happened...?

Thinking about how silly this all appears, I was suddenly taken to an image of a soccer match. What we have hear is a group of players huddling together to discuss on a strategy that would save them from being scored at by the opponent. They are thinking about this type of defense strategy and that type of defensive formations. Talk, talk, discuss, discuss...

You see, the funny thing about all of this is that the ball is already in their net! The opponents are already cheering their heads off! While the home players are discussing on how they can deal with the opponents' onslaught and prevent a goal from happening, their goalie is shouting at the top of his lungs, blasting at the rest of the team for letting the goal happen.

What then...?!

The team could indeed cry foul, say that the referee was biased, say the pitch was too hard, or too soft, and then just walk out of the pitch. Noticing how fast the first goal went in, it makes some sense that to quit the game now would save them from the embarrassment of letting more goals (by the hundreds) in.

However, for the team to call it quits would be disastrous.

Fine, the opponents got a goal. But to quit the game when it has just started would be ridiculous because they would step off the pitch with a loss in their hands. A "walk-out" is not a draw; it's not even "face-saving". It's a loss, and a shameful one. It's like to walk away with their tails between their legs.

The team should instead stay in the game. Only by staying in the game will they have any chance of scoring back. The goal they let in can only be "canceled" by a goal of their own. If the team just hover to sulk and discuss on how to prevent that goal from having happened, that's all they will ever get: a lament.

If the team do decide to stay in the game, and if they only talk about how to defend themselves from being scored at, well the best that they could achieve would be to let in the least amount of goals. But by doing so, no matter what they do, they will have little chance at scoring against the opponents.

The team should strategize about how to score goals. It won't be easy. For a weaker side, it's always easier to play on the defensive, hoping for a chance at counter-attack. They could do that, of course, but they would let the opponent control the game.

Instead, by being brave and setting their sights beyond the half-line, they may be able to make chances, and maybe even score goals.

Playing the game on the offensive means that the team will have a chance to level the score. Okay, so the opponent may score more goals in the process; but if the home team can score more goals, then no matter how massive the final tally turns out, the team would end up winning.

And so, rather then sulk and strategize about something that has already happened, it's about time that the team thinks about winning. A winning spirit brings out the best in every player.

In soccer, even the team that looks weaker on paper can win. In soccer, the ball is round and things happen, sometimes beyond everyone's expectation.

The same maybe can said about the Great ASEAN-China Soccer Game.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Don't Let the Dragon Fly-by

In the last three decades, China has evolved from a poor, backward nation into becoming one of the most influential players in international relations. However, at a time when many countries are cozying up to China and trying to take advantage of China’s growing power, there is a strong feeling that Indonesia is simply not putting enough effort to strengthen its relations with China.

With the signing of the Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership between the two countries by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and President Hu Jintao on 25 April 2005, the stage was set for greater efforts to foster existing good bilateral relations and expanding cooperation to other potential and mutually beneficial efforts in politics, security, economics and social affairs. However, four years on, much remains to be desired in Indonesia’s foreign policymaking towards China. Of course, the Plan of Action for the implementation of the Strategic Partnership was just signed recently; however, can it be a guarantee for the two countries’ strengthening relations in the future.

There are weaknesses in Indonesia’s development of a China policy. If anything, one is tempted to say that there is not a China policy within Indonesia’s foreign policy design. At a time when many countries are cozying up to China and trying to take advantage of China’s growing power, there is this strong feeling – particularly among scholars of China studies in Indonesia – that Indonesia is simply not putting enough effort to strengthen its relations with China. Instead, Indonesia has been more comfortable with waiting for the Chinese to initiate the engagement and dictating it on their terms. Although there have been achievements made, much of the development in bilateral relations in the past few years have been attributed to the uncoordinated, exclusive engagement efforts of segments of the Indonesian Government and society.

If the trend continues, then Indonesia will most likely be doomed to facing insurmountable challenges in dealing with the growing multi-faceted power of China. In the end, the Indonesia’s failure to engage China appropriately would be to the benefit of its neighbors such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand.

There is a genuine need for a more coherent, target-oriented, comprehensive, and cohesive Indonesian foreign policy towards China. This could be achieved not only by attending to some of the major policy issues related to Indonesia-China relations, but also by encouraging changes within the structure and attitudes of the country’s foreign policymaking institutions, particularly the Department of Foreign Affairs. It is no longer sufficient for Indonesia’s China policy to be guided simply by the notion of a “One China Policy”.

The rise of China is a fact; it is pure nonsense to even argue in favor of either “containing” China or not engaging it at all. As a leading nation in Southeast Asia, Indonesia would do well in demonstrating its leadership in the region through a well-calibrated engagement with China. Yet, if Indonesia’s understanding, approach, and effort in nursing this bilateral relationship were lacking, sooner or later Indonesia would realize that it would be at the short end of the relationship, unable to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with China and its growing power.