President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s latest visit to China occurs during a fascinating period that bears several defining characteristics.
First, the power constellation at the global and particularly in the East Asian regional level has undergone significant change.
The so-called “Asian Century” has taken shape, notably with the rise of China; while the world witnesses how economic crises have put weighty pressures on America.
Second, as a ramification of the above situation, the intense and inextricably interconnected relations between America (as the existing superpower) and China (as a rising power) became the overarching shadow over the global as well as regional engagements.
As they simultaneously cooperate and compete, the region is watching, hedging, wondering and worrying if the history of the Cold War would repeat itself.
As a “middle power” that is doing relatively better than others in the region, and as an increasingly prominent “natural leader” in ASEAN, Indonesia can actually play a unique role in shaping the power constellation in East Asia.
Indonesia’s strategic partnership with China is one of the essential elements to this endeavor.
There are changes occurring in China that we must pay attention to. The long-held notion of Chinese foreign policy is that relations with major powers have been top leadership priorities, followed by relations with neighboring countries, developing countries and international organizations respectively.
As narratives of the “Asian Century” gradually gain currency in the international relations vocabulary, a subtle hint of change has appeared in China’s official vocabulary just this year.
While speaking at the Fifth Session of the 11th National People’s Congress earlier this month, Premier Wen Jiabao signaled a subtle shift in the notion of China’s foreign policy.
Departing from the previous pattern of mentioning the importance of major powers first, his speech opened with references to the importance of “friendly relations with our neighbors”, followed by developing countries and major countries respectively.
This does not mean that major power relations are no longer important for China, but it does indicate that China may be paying greater attention to the region.
What are we to China? Indonesia is indeed a developing country. Indonesia is not exactly China’s direct neighbor, as we do not share borders with China. However, in various formal occasions, China’s officials have often referred to Indonesia as a “neighbor”.
The current intellectual discourses in China identify several trends that affect China’s view of Indonesia.
First, Indonesia has played an increasingly active role in international and regional affairs (in particular, in the G20 and ASEAN/EAS). This and the long-acknowledged natural size and geography of Indonesia have positioned us as one of China’s potential key regional partners.
Second, changes in the perception of China and of Chinese-Indonesians in Indonesia have allowed observers in China to gradually feel less troubled by the anti-China/Chinese sentiments in the past and in the future.
Nationwide Chinese New Year, or Imlek, celebrations, the appointment of first female Chinese-Indonesian minister, greater participation of Chinese-Indonesians in the democratization processes are identified as positive signals.
Third, Indonesia is perceived as having distinct relations with the US, although nothing like the status of Japan or Korea as one of the US’ traditional allies. Aside from several decades of pro-American relations during the Cold War, our comprehensive partnership with the US and what is perceived as the personal connection with Obama have caught China’s attention.
Fourth, Indonesia’s economic potential as source of materials and as a market could be useful to China’s current economic restructuring efforts — from an export-oriented economy to one more driven by domestic consumption. ASEAN Connectivity projects are within this rationale.
With that in mind, we would all agree that, technically, adhering to our free and active policy is the best way. Some observers in China even believe that with Indonesia’s current position, Indonesia can play a unique role in managing Sino-US relations in the region.
However, despite the President’s “millions friends, zero enemies” catchphrase, some in China and also in Indonesia have doubted his consistency — especially after the President’s remark regarding the US military deployment in Australia.
The deployment itself is regarded by many in China as an American move to contain China’s ambitions. Regardless of whether or not the American move is part of a larger containment strategy, President Yudhoyono’s outright support maybe interpreted as taking sides.
This unique role that Indonesia could play must be a dynamic one that balances bilateral diplomacy (with both China and the US) as well as multilateral diplomacy (through an ASEAN-driven framework).
We certainly could not attain such a goal if we appear to be taking sides or pretending there are no rivalries.
Leadership in China will change this autumn, but there will be continuity, rather than radical change, in China’s overall policy. In other words, Wen’s subtle hint might be the beginning of a more dynamic “Asian engagement” policy from China. So, are we ready?
The writer is a researcher at Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta. She is currently pursuing doctorate degree at School of International Studies, Peking University.