Variations on a Theme: Dimensions of Ambivalence in Indonesia-China Relations

When Indonesia signed a Strategic Partnership with China in 2005, many believed that Indonesia was finally moving away from its historically strong ties with the United States and straight into Beijing’s arms. The subsequent growth in military-to-military ties that followed alongside the incredible expansion in economic ties seemed to further vindicate this argument. Following the implementation of the China–ASEAN Free Trade Agreement in 2010, China even became Indonesia’s largest trading partner. This development is remarkable considering that Indonesia did not resume formal diplomatic ties with China until 1990, after a 23-year suspension from 1967. Is Indonesia finally joining the Chinese bandwagon?

Upon taking a closer look at the evolution in the bilateral relations, however, the answer to this question is not so straightforward. Indeed, the picture of Indonesia’s policy towards China is not a simple question of hedging, balancing, bandwagoning, or some variation of the three — though many analyses of Southeast Asian responses to China’s rise focus on these specific strategies. This paper argues instead that, when located within the broader evolution of Indonesia-China relations, Jakarta’s policy towards China is that of persistent ambivalence and ambiguity. Scholars have made this argument before. But they seldom break down the components or dimensions of that ambivalence and explore the rationale behind it.

This paper therefore aims to explain the ambivalence in Indonesia–China relations by assessing its four main dimensions: domestic politics, economics, strategic and security, and regional and foreign policy. These dimensions of ambivalence largely originate from deep-rooted sentiments and from the perceptions of the Indonesian public and elite, which are in turn shaped by a long history of mutual interaction, the place of ethnic Chinese-Indonesians in Indonesian society, as well as by China’s geographic proximity. In particular, the elite believes that China is gigantic, arrogant, aggressive and expansionist, and a geopolitical rival—and this is why most them (78 percent) are still concerned about the future implications of its ascendancy. Public perceptions of China on the other hand are shaped by their views of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese as the “other”—a separate race, with a different religion and different economic privileges that is unwilling to change and is only concerned with its own well being.

As such, Indonesia’s perception of China is often the projection of its image of domestic ethnic Chinese, a situation compounded by a lack of knowledge about China among Indonesians. Therefore, while these images may not necessarily be true, they still influence how Jakarta engages Beijing. Indeed, one scholar has argued that the question of perceptions, both within the elite and among the wider public, serves as the most important context within which Indonesia’s China policy is formulated and carried out. The following discussion therefore will be placed within the context of overall Indonesian perceptions regarding China.

A complete version of the paper is published by Harvard Asia Quarterly (Spring 2011) (download here).

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