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’état 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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