The discourse on China has over the years blossomed in Indonesia. Having re-established diplomatic ties in 1990 after over 24 years of freezing, questions have since been asked with regards to how Indonesia should deal with China’s growing influence in international politics. In general, most people agree that engagement with China needs to be stepped up. However, as the usual case, the trickiest questions often remain unanswered; What must be done? How can it be done?
While Indonesia-China relations have grown since 1990, much of this has been attributed to the uncoordinated, exclusive engagement efforts of certain segments within the Indonesian Government and society. Officials carry out solo approaches towards Chinese counterparts, unaware of those conducted by others in the government. At the same time, the private sector is going about its business without sufficient recognition and guidance by the government. As a result, it is not rare that we see duplications in efforts.
China may need Indonesia as much as Indonesia needs China. However, if engagement with China continues to be carried out sparingly and with a lack of coordination, then Indonesia would unlikely be able to increase its overall leverage and ensure that its relations with China benefit the Indonesian people as a whole.
At a time when many countries are cozying up to China and trying to take advantage of China’s growing power, Indonesia does not appear to be putting enough effort in strengthening its relations with China. Such a view was even expressed by the Chinese Ambassador to Indonesia during a lunch gathering with Indonesian businessmen in March 2010.
On the one hand, Indonesia sees China as a potentially beneficial partner in efforts to strengthen the national economy. Between 2001 and 2009, bilateral trade grew from USD 6.7 billion to USD 25.5 billion. Such growth has also been complemented by progress in ASEAN-China relations, particularly considering the establishment of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area. Indeed, ASEAN as a whole is a major trading partner for China, ranking 3rd and 4th in terms of exports to and imports from China, respectively.
On the other hand, China sees a considerable amount of significance in its relations with Indonesia, the largest and most populated country in Southeast Asia. In 2011, such significance will become more pronounced as Indonesia assumes the Chairmanship of ASEAN. As a way to enhance is stature in international relations, China has been active in engaging the Asia-Pacific through structures such as APEC, East Asia Summit, ASEAN+3, and ASEAN+China. Although statistics show that China’s trade with Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore are more significant, Indonesia continues to be treated as ASEAN’s most influential player.
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 Southeast Asia nation, 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 remain lacking, sooner or later Indonesia would find itself at the short end of the relationship, unable to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with China and its growing power.