If businessman Sukamdani Sahid Gitosardjono had not paved the way to open direct trade relations with China in the 1980s, the story of Indonesia‘s diplomatic ties with the Middle Kingdom may have turned out differently.
As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Indonesia–China ties with excitement, Sukamdani looks back at the success of his past efforts with gratitude.
“Indonesia and China’s 60-year relationship can be considered mature, especially if we take into account the ups and downs experienced,” said the 82-year-old owner of the Sahid Hotel chain.
As a witness to all those ups and downs, Sukamdani never imagined his initiative to open direct trade relations with China, which he did when heading the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KADIN), would strengthen the relationship — that froze between 1967 and 1990 — between both countries.
“What drove me [to open the direct trade ties] at that time was a simple reason,” recalled the man who owns more than 20 hotels. “As a merchant, I saw how disadvantageous it was for goods from both Indonesia and China to be traded through third parties such as Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong.
“The flow of goods was not smooth while using third parties. So I thought, ‘Why not open direct trade relations with China?’ It would be more beneficial for us.”
Although his argument was fairly straightforward, he had to propose the idea three times before former President Sukarno agreed to support it. The first time, Sukamdani said, Sukarno wasn’t interested at all. He, however, could understand why, as he knew Sukarno was still traumatized by the Sept. 30, 1965 bloodbath, which led the Indonesian government to freeze diplomatic ties with China.
At that time, the Indonesian government believed China was behind the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), deemed responsible for the incident.
“The third time I proposed the idea to Sukarno, I mentioned that Indonesia needed raw materials [from China] and foreign exchange reserves to support the country’s development,” Sukamdani said.
At first, he went on, Sukarno questioned why Indonesia needed direct trade relations with China when it was already had ties to Taiwan.
“That was when I shared my view, as the Kadin chairman, that in general, we, Indonesians, wanted to conduct business with more nations,” said Sukamdani, who has been in the hotel business for more than 50 years.
After the third attempt, Sukarno was finally on board. Although the process didn’t progress as smoothly as expected, representatives of the chamber and the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT) eventually signed a landmark agreement on direct bilateral trade in July 1985. At that time, Asiaweek magazine called the deal the “Pact of Giants”, reflecting its significance.
The agreement, surprisingly, “gave momentum for both countries to resume diplomatic ties,” Sukamdani said, smiling. “Five years of direct trade ties, perhaps, was considered enough [to recover from the frozen relations].”
So, on Aug. 8, 1990, diplomatic ties between Indonesia and China were finally restored. And as
Sukamdani highlighted, “it’s important to note that it was actually the business community that helped bridge this diplomatic recovery.”
Today, more than 20 years after his initiative, Sukamdani is still playing an important role in strengthening the relationship between both countries. As the Association of Indonesia-China Economic, Social and Culture chairman, he continues to work towards enhancing cooperation between the two countries.
“People ask if China considers Indonesia important today,” said Sukamdani, who received the title of Friendship Ambassador from the Chinese government in 1994. “My answer is China does, especially because of history.”
Historically, he says, “China grew because it was inspired by Indonesia. It wanted to support Indonesia in the hope that it wouldn’t be ‘defeated’ by the US.
“China also sees Indonesia as the leader of ASEAN,” he added.
Sukamdani acknowledged that some people were still pessimistic about whether the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA), which came into effect early this year, would benefit Indonesia. However, Sukamdani said Indonesians had to have faith in their country’s strong selling power.
“For example, China lacks commodities such as coal for its power plants,” Sukamdani said.
“Meanwhile, Indonesia is rich in coal. It’s possible for China to relocate its power plants to Indonesia.”
In China, small power stations with a 350-megawatt capacity are no longer efficient. Now they need to generate at least 650 megawatts. This, Sukamdani said, could be another reason for China to relocate those power plants here.
“If China relocates its power plants here, it can also relocate its companies [here],” he said.
In the field of automotives and electronics, prospects for Indonesia and China are also bright, he went on. Therefore, we should invite Chinese to invest in those two sectors, he went on.
“The [Automotives and electronics] market is a wide one — not only in China,” Sukamdani explained.
“Developing these two sectors will also create more employment [opportunities].”
Indonesia shouldn’t only focus on enhancing its ties with China in the economic sphere. The social and cultural fields, Sukamdani said, were also important.
“While education, science and technology are important for our intellect, developing culture strengthens the character of a nation,” said the co-founder of Bisnis Indonesia daily and Mandarin language newspaper Indonesia Shangbao.
Learning more about the arts in China, for example, can provide Indonesia with insight into how
the once-underdeveloped China prospered.
“China grew because it embraced rural development,” Sukamdani revealed. “[The government] built infrastructure in rural areas so those areas could develop. This way, development was not just confined to cities.”
Sukamdani has long been regarded as China’s good friend. Former Chinese Ambassador to Indonesia Lan Lijun, now ambassador to Canada, once said that Sukamdani was “a long-time friend of China, as well as a champion for China-Indonesia relations and cooperation”.
In fact, Sukamdani mused, “if you read school textbooks in China, you will only find two Indonesian names there – Sukarno and Sukamdani.”
Really? Well, he seemed serious enough when he mentioned it (twice) during the interview, although he did so with a giggle – just the same way he confessed: “I can’t understand or speak Chinese. I have my own translator.”