• posted by Anindya May 15th, 2011

    ind-chinaThere 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.

    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.