SINGAPORE — During Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent visit to Jakarta and Bandung for the Golden Jubilee Commemoration of the 1955 Bandung Conference, Indonesian organizers underscored China’s place at the conference and Hu stayed an extra day to sign a Strategic Partnership Agreement between Indonesia and China, a partnership with four Asian strategic dimensions.
First, history was in the making. A bitter episode in Indonesian-Chinese relations was laid to rest, just as China was riling Japan for supposedly not facing up to its own history. Indonesians remember the trauma of the 1965 military coup. The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) had gained strength under the Sukarno regime to the alarm of Washington and others in the Western world. After the alleged assassination of military top brass (whose bodies were dumped in a well), military forces moved in and killed hundreds of thousands of suspected PKI members. The party was banned from Indonesian politics.
The Chinese Communist Party expressed stiff opposition to the incoming Suharto administration in 1967. Relations between the two countries were not normalized until 1990. The recent Strategic Partnership Agreement capped a painful episode in Sino-Indonesian relations and should pave the way for a visit to Beijing later this year by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Second, mutual economic benefits that both Jakarta and Beijing hope to reap were underscored. China will provide financial assistance to build a dam in West Java and a bridge in East Java. The total value of these projects is estimated at $507 million. Moreover, both sides pledge to increase trade from the current $13.5 billion in 2004 to $15 billion in 2005, and then to $20 billion in 2006.
Investments from China are expected to blossom too, especially in the oil and gas sector; current Chinese investments in this sector already total $1.2 billion. According to the Indonesian Investment Coordinating Board, total Chinese investments in Indonesia for the five-year period through 2004 reached $6.5 billion. Indonesian Coordinating Minister for the Economy Aburizal Bakrie added that a group of Chinese businessmen had committed to investing up to $10 billion in the near future in toll roads, oil/energy, and palm plantations.
Third, the historic strategic agreement can be viewed as a “rehabilitation” of the Indonesian-Chinese community and an acknowledgment of the crucial role that it will play in building Indonesian-Chinese economic relations. A dinner hosted in Hu’s honor by the Chinese Chapter of KADIN, the Indonesia Chamber of Commerce, was attended by prominent members of the Indonesian-Chinese community and marked by great pomp.
The Indonesian-Chinese community was the target of indigenous Indonesian anger as recently as May 1998, when anti-Chinese riots took place in Jakarta and other major cities. But for the past four years, under the former administrations of presidents Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri, members of the Indonesian-Chinese community were “rehabilitated,” regaining many of their rights as Indonesian citizens. This move followed years of discrimination under the Suharto administration, when Chinese education was banned and Chinese-language signs were barred in public places.
The Chinese New Year was reinstated as an official public holiday in Indonesia only two years ago and the Chinese districts of Kota and Glodok in Jakarta now hold vibrant celebrations. Chinese-language signs are also prominently displayed in Jakarta, Medan, Surabaya and other big cities.
The strategic partnership between Jakarta and Beijing “consecrates” the rehabilitation of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese community, a development that will contribute to the stabilization of Sino-Indonesian relations and put to rest the painful history of 1965.
Hu in turn has cleverly used the Indonesian-Chinese community to “rehabilitate” the image of China in Indonesia and strengthen his personal relationship with Yudhoyono, a former career military man.
Finally, the Indonesian-Chinese strategic partnership has a strategic angle. Jakarta believes a strategic relationship with China would serve it well in its relationship with the United States. Jakarta’s relationship with Washington has been rocky since the fall of Suharto, largely due to U.S. criticism of the role of the Indonesian military. Yudhoyono, keen to restore military relations with the U.S., sees a strategic partnership with China as a way of balancing big-power relations in the region.
For its part, Beijing seeks to break out of what it regards as Washington’s “strategic containment of China” along its Pacific coast as well as its western and southern hinterlands. By signing strategic partnerships with Russia, India and Indonesia; Beijing has prevented them, at least on paper, from joining an “American anti-China coalition.”
China made territorial concessions to Russia and India to secure the two strategic partnerships, whereas with Indonesia, Beijing seeks to ensure that a “neutral” Jakarta will not block its Pacific and Indian Ocean access points for exports and energy imports.
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