Six decades of Sino-Indonesian relations and ‘Realpolitik’

In October 1949, Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Zhongguo Gongchandang or the Communist Party of China proclaimed the establishment of the Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo or The People’s Republic of China.

In December 1949, the Dutch Government acknowledged the existence of the Republic of Indonesia, which had declared its own independence on Aug. 17, 1945.

Amid the complex chaos surrounding both governments to get their state matters in order, the PRC and the Indonesian governments seem not to have neglected their bilateral relations.

On April 13, 1950, the PRC and Indonesia established diplomatic relations, and soon thereafter both governments were engaged in increasingly close cooperation marked by a strong anti-colonialism spirit. It was very natural considering the prevailing zeitgeist among the new states of the world at that time.

In April 1955 Premier Zhou Enlai visited Indonesia to attend the first Asian-African Conference in Bandung that paved the way towards the power consolidation of the newly independent Asian-African countries.

President Sukarno visited China in 1956 for the first time. In 1930 he already mentioned that “Whoever holds the environs of China will control the affairs of the entire Eastern world”. (Hong Liu: Constructing a China metaphor: Sukarno’s perception of the PRC and Indonesia’s political transformation. 1997)

In November 1961, president Liu Shaoqi visited Jakarta to sign a Treaty of Friendship, and in April 1964 foreign minister Marshal Chen Yi visited Jakarta in preparation of the second Asian-African Conference.

The Treaty of Friendship, however, proves to hold for five years only to entail in severance of diplomatic relations by Indonesia under president Soeharto in October 1967 following the alleged Communist coup d’├ętat attempt in 1965.

Soon things got turbulent in China as well as in Indonesia. In China, Chairman Mao Zedong

had launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, which would last for a decade, to which many people including high ranking officials fell victim.

In Indonesia, president Soeharto who took over the helm from president Sukarno worked towards economic development to overcome the state bankruptcy, while at the same time purging those suspected of having Communist affiliations.

Nevertheless, things in China started to change course in 1974, when Premier Zhou Enlai managed to convince Chairman Mao Zedong to reinstall Deng Xiaoping as First Vice-Premier.

However, it was only in 1977 following the demise of Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong in 1976 that Deng Xiaoping put an end to the Cultural Revolution and launched the “Beijing Spring”.

In December 1978 at the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee, Deng Xiaoping officially announced the launch of the “Four Modernizations” (Sige Xiandaihua), formally marking the beginning of the reform era.

The tense Sino-Indonesian bilateral relations began to ease in the 1980s, despite much debate and back and forth on the Indonesian domestic side. As a result, resumption of diplomatic relations took place only on Aug. 8, 1990 followed by a state visit by Premier Li Peng. Indonesia eventually seemed to realize that we had to respond to the change in global politics anyway.

Meanwhile, Indonesia’s internal dynamics that led to de-regulation and de-bureaucratization in the private sector had very likely contributed to refurbishment in its foreign policy as well.

The fall of then president Soeharto in May 1998 that substantially changed Indonesia’s political paradigm brought about further development into the Sino-Indonesian relations.

It came to a lively exchange of high ranking official visits between the two governments. In April 2005 defense minister Juwono Sudarsono was instrumental to the drawing-up of the Declaration of Strategic Partnership with his counterpart Gen. Cao Gangchuan.

Nonetheless, the economic and business field between the two countries demonstrates much more dynamism compared to the defense sector, notwithstanding the widespread acknowledgement that Indonesia is more on the receiving end of Chinese wide-ranging products. Despite Indonesia’s significant exports to the PRC, China is flooding Indonesia with all kinds of products, just name it: from heavy equipment down to sewing needles and footwear.

There should be no illusion expected from the renewed Sino-Indonesian relations, however, as it was aptly formulated by then Ambassador Lan Lijun in May 2006: “Our strategic partnership is a new type of state-to-state relationship that is based on mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and cooperation.” (Xinhua, May 10, 2006).

Nonetheless, Indonesia simply cannot afford to ignore the PRC for many reasons. The PRC holds almost US$1 trillion of US bonds and it is only a matter of time that it will takeover Japan’s position as the number two economic power of the world. It is a military power with ICBM capability with a budget only number two in the world after the US.

The PRC is roaming continents to satisfy its need for raw materials and energy.

What can we make out of “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and cooperation”? The answer lies much in the way we capitalize on our relations with the PRC. What lesson can we draw from the six decade dynamics of the Sino-Indonesian relations?

Lesson number one should remind us to the classic but basic adagium that there is no eternal friend or foe in the relations among nations, no matter how sweet or bitter it could be or could have been.


Lesson number two tells us that above all, national interests of nations respectively prevail over all calculations they may bring up for better or for worse.

Lesson number three, don’t forget Machiavelli: Like politics, foreign relations are not a matter of like or dislike but rather a question of necessity. In other words: that is exactly Realpolitik as understood by the Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898).

The three lessons thus gained would guide us to looking forward to a fair but competitive cooperation between the two countries, which would be carried out peacefully and yet upholding the mutual respect that each country in the world deserves, hopefully leading to the proportional advantage that each country could draw from its bilateral relations.

The writer is Professor at the School of Philosophy, Parahyangan Catholic University, Bandung.


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Indonesia endorses expansion of EAS

Lilian Budianto , The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Wed, 03/24/2010 9:29 AM | Headlines

Jakarta has endorsed the expansion of the East Asia Summit (EAS) by welcoming membership for the US and Russia in the 16-strong regional forum.

The move marks a shift in Indonesia’s EAS policy, previously geared away from admitting new members.

Officials previously said expanding the forum to include the two would risk turning the EAS into “a mini UN”, and diverting the focus of the regional grouping established under ASEAN leadership.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa announced the shift in policy on the sidelines of a press conference last Friday, saying Indonesia was anticipating EAS expansion because of “the merits of having more powers as members”.

The EAS comprises the 10 ASEAN member states and China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

Its main focus is to seek political stability amid the power play between the three regional powers: Japan, China and South Korea.

“We think the EAS can be further improved by having more members, which can make a difference within the organization,” Marty said.

“Indonesia’s strategic interest is to see the region free from domination by a single power; this doesn’t imply a policy of containment.”

Russia has since 2004 expressed interest in joining the EAS.

In 2005, during the inauguration of the forum, its closest approach to date was reportedly thwarted by US lobbying of ASEAN member states.

Indonesia and Singapore were said to be behind US efforts to stymie Moscow’s ambitions.

For its part, the US’ intention to join the EAS was touched on in a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this year in Hawaii.

Analysts say the US is re-engaging in the Asian political arena in a bid to counterbalance China’s growing influence in most ASEAN countries.

Jakarta’s new policy stance comes just as an array of regional partnerships are being proposed to seek Indonesia and ASEAN’s endorsement.

The US, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Chile, Brunei, Peru and Vietnam began negotiations earlier this year for a new Trans-Pacific Partnership, ultimately seeking an Asia-Pacific free trade zone.

Australia has also separately wooed support for its Asia Pacific Union, and Japan is touting its East Asia Community concept.

Russian Ambassador to Indonesia Alexander Ivanov said Moscow welcomed the remark by Marty that it could become an EAS member in the near future.

“Russia and ASEAN have substantial relations,” he said.

“We have been a dialogue partner since 1996 and will hold the second Russian—ASEAN Summit later this year in Hanoi.”

Rizal Sukma, the executive director at the Centre for Strategy and International Studies, however, warned of the risk of a bloated EAS.

“It’s not going to be effective if it has too many members with diverse interests,” he said.

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