Indonesian President Joko Widodo walks past his country's flag on a navy ship during a visit to a military base in the Natuna islands, which border the South China Sea. Photo: Presidential Palace Handout via AFP
Johannes Nugroho
Johannes Nugroho

How Indonesia and China can learn to get along

  • Many Indonesians are sceptical of China’s motives, thanks to decades-old prejudice and Beijing’s recent assertiveness in the South China Sea
  • Both sides have a long way to go before they reach a mutual understanding, but showing respect – or giving ‘face’ – would be a good start
A US$125 billion plan to modernise Indonesia’s military, for which Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto recently sought parliamentary approval, would represent the country’s most pronounced attempt yet to stand up to China’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea.
Though Indonesia maintains it is a non-claimant state, some 19,300 square miles of its exclusive economic zone around the Natuna Islands fall within the nine-dash line Beijing uses to claim nearly 90 per cent of the disputed waterway. Incursions by Chinese fishing vessels backed up by China’s coastguard have regularly taken place in Indonesian waters since the early 2010s.

Subianto’s arms scheme, which a ministry official said would rely on funding from a 28-year loan guaranteed by “countries sitting as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council”, is a sobering reminder of China’s image problem in Indonesia.

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Beijing’s insistence on including a portion of the Natuna Sea as part of its “ traditional fishing grounds” has been seen by Jakarta as the most immediate threat to its sovereignty – a sensitive issue for many Indonesians and one that has cost the nation’s presidents dearly in the recent past.
BJ Habibie, whose brief tenure as Indonesia’s third president ended in 1999, failed to secure renomination partly because he was deemed responsible for allowing an independence referendum to take place that year in East Timor, leading to its eventual secession three years later. The former Portuguese colony had been annexed by Indonesia in 1975 and administered as a province.
Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose presidency lasted from 2001 to 2004, suffered a serious dent to her reputation after the International Court of Justice ruled in Malaysia’s favour in 2002 in a dispute with Indonesia over the islands of Ligitan and Sipadan in the Celebes Sea.

Bullying, incursions

China’s apparent disregard of Indonesia’s sovereign territory has created the perception that it is a bully. In a public poll conducted by Media Survei Nasional ahead of Indonesia’s 75th independence celebration last year, 31.5 per cent of 466 respondents from 17 cities across the country named China as a threat – ahead of the US at 10.8 per cent and Malaysia at 4.3 per cent.

Given this palpable antipathy, the best olive branch China could offer Indonesia would be to stop further incursions by Chinese vessels into the Natuna Sea. Beijing’s offers of bilateral negotiations on fishing rights in the area have been strongly rebuffed, with Jakarta maintaining that there was no question of its full sovereignty over the Natunas, and thus no need for any negotiation.

When asked about the China issues that concerned them most, respondents to the opinion poll cited above said national economic crisis, communism and foreign workers in Indonesia.

While China can hardly be expected to change its political system to please Indonesians, there are certainly things it could do to generate a better perception of its workers in the country.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Indonesian President Joko Widodo walk together in China’s Hangzhou before a meeting in 2016. Photo: AP

Cultivating a culture of trust in Chinese investment may take years to accomplish, but ensuring that respect is given to Indonesia’s culture and language would be a good start.

A new Chinese-funded cement plant in East Kalimantan attracted accusations of discriminatory recruitment practises earlier this month after it advertised vacancies for workers “fluent in Mandarin”.


Similar faux pas could be prevented – and humiliation avoided – if bilingual workplaces were created where Indonesian was spoken and used extensively alongside Chinese.

But two countries’ chequered relations, and the less than cordial perceptions both peoples have of one another, will never improve without tangible efforts by Indonesia.

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The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for instance, should make urgent reforms to increase the attention it gives China. An organisational structure that allocates an entire directorate-general to America and Europe while China affairs – as per the ministry’s website – are managed by an official who is also in charge of relations with several other countries might have been appropriate two or three decades ago, but it is anomalous now.


Given that China is Indonesia’s largest trading partner and has grown immensely more powerful in recent years, it would also make sense for the ministry to have more diplomats proficient in Mandarin and versed in Chinese culture.

Indonesia’s lack of expertise on China can be explained by a decades-old prejudice against Chinese culture that stems from Suharto’s time in power. Policies enacted during his 32-year rule included a ban on the public use of Chinese characters, names and language in Indonesia, which helped perpetuate anti-Chinese sentiment that remains implacable to this day.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, China was seen in Indonesia as a backward, impoverished place where people dressed in drab clothes and rode rickety bicycles, at a time when Indonesians were starting to have enough money to afford motorbikes and cars.


The Indonesian Chinese still grappling with discrimination

The Indonesian Chinese still grappling with discrimination

But as China’s economic development began to outstrip Indonesia’s from the 1990s onwards, the bureaucrats in Jakarta never seemed to adapt to this change, nor envisage a strategy for it.


As a result, every administration since the fall of Suharto in 1998, with the exception of Abdurrahman Wahid’s, has had to juggle welcoming Chinese money and investment while at the same time being mindful of a public who are largely China-sceptic and appear indifferent towards the country and its culture.

Both China and Indonesia have a long way to go before a mutual understanding between the two can exist. For its part, Beijing must understand that the concept of “face” is as important in Indonesia’s culture as it is in China’s. Indonesians, on the other hand, must put into practice their oft-quoted saying that “loving without knowing is impossible” – which seems apt in China’s case.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer and political analyst from Surabaya, Indonesia