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Jakarta Post

[COMMENTARY] 1989: When Soeharto totally changed his mind on China

  • Kornelius Purba

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Mon, November 2, 2020   /   05:17 pm
[COMMENTARY] 1989: When Soeharto totally changed his mind on China Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (left) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) during the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan in June 2019. (Presidential Palace Press Bureau/Laily Rachev)

On Feb. 24, 1989, leading Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun ran a shocking scoop on its morning edition’s front page that president Soeharto would meet Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen in Tokyo on the sidelines of the funeral of emperor Hirohito. Japanese prime minister Noboru Takeshita was very excited as Soeharto would meet Qian Qichen at Imperial Hotel that day to discuss the normalization of relations between the two countries, which Soeharto froze for about 22 years.

Takeshita was delighted by this unexpected development, because Soeharto chose Tokyo as the venue of the historic encounter. The timing was also perfect. Many countries accused the emperor of war crimes for being the Japanese supreme leader during World War II, which, of course, Japan denied. The meeting would bring a great moment of peace to Japan.

Soeharto replaced Sukarno in 1967 and soon severed relations with China, which officially began on June 9, 1950. Soeharto accused China of abetting the aborted coup attempt blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) on Sept. 30, 1965, which Beijing strongly denied.

The period from Soeharto’s dramatic turnaround in 1989 until the complete resumption of Indonesia-China relations one year later is one of memorable events for me as a journalist. As an Asahi reporter I obtained more scoops from Soeharto’s side about the restoration of the diplomatic ties, honestly, simply because I was lucky. I called myself an “accidental hero” for that reason.

A few days before Soeharto’s departure for Tokyo, the powerful state secretary, Moerdiono, announced in a standing press conference the itinerary of Soeharto’s visit to Japan and the list of foreign leaders who wanted to meet him.

When Moerdiono named Richard von Weizsäcker, I moved to his back to peep the right spelling of the West German president. I was shocked to see Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen also on the list. Before entering his car, Moerdiono warned me against leaking “the very top state secret” information, or else I would face serious consequences. I nodded, because I was afraid of Moerdiono.

When Asahi finally published the information, Soeharto suddenly won attention from Japanese and international media. Later, Moerdiono told me he was happy with my scoop. He later on nicknamed me Munir, which actually I did not like.

Soeharto agreed to reopen ties with China and assigned Moerdiono, rather than foreign minister Ali Alatas, to take follow-up measures. China unconditionally accepted nearly all of Soeharto’s conditions after he agreed to follow the One China Policy.

Then the Tiananmen Square massacre happened on June 4, 1989. It was very damaging to China’s international reputation. The world isolated Beijing, therefore accelerating reopening of diplomatic relations with Jakarta became more urgent.

Beijing needed a diplomatic breakthrough from Indonesia, the largest member of ASEAN. Indonesia was also important, because Singapore and Brunei would only formalize their relations with China, after Indonesia did so. (Singapore formalized its ties with Beijing on Oct. 3, 1990, with Brunei following suit in September 1991).

Soeharto decided to reconcile with China reportedly because he was impressed by the steady economic progress of the world’s largest Communist state under its paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Soeharto deemed the direction of Deng was very different compared to Mao Zedong’s strict communism.

Soeharto had at least two strong reasons to be more acceptable to China’s lobbies.

First, Soeharto wanted to have direct trade with China, because, after he had severed ties with China, trade between Indonesia and China was conducted via Singapore and Hong Kong.

Second, Soeharto was very ambitious to create a peaceful Southeast Asia region. He wanted to end the prolonged war in Cambodia, where Indonesia acted as a peace broker. Vietnam invaded Cambodia at Christmas 1978 to topple the China-backed Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, who allegedly had butchered 2 million of his people.

I continued to ride my luck when Chinese premier Li Peng came to Jakarta in 1990. Before his visit was announced by Moerdiono, a national newspaper wrote that the Chinese leader was likely to meet Soeharto in a foreign country, such as Bangkok, and that Indonesia had to pay compensation for the destruction of the Chinese Embassy in Glodok, West Jakarta, back in 1965.

Who would not be impressed? The article was written by a fluent Chinese speaker who was almost an expert about China. He laughed at me when I told him about my report on Li’s visit. He did not know that Moerdiono had told me details of the Chinese premier’s trip to Jakarta, of course as background information only.

Moerdiono told me China had not asked for anything except for Soeharto’s recognition of the One China Policy. China also promised to not interfere with Indonesia’s internal affairs and its territorial sovereignty.

On Aug. 8, 1990, Soeharto and Li witnessed the historic diplomatic normalization signed by Alatas and Qian Qichen at the Merdeka Palace. In November that year, Soeharto visited Beijing.

Soeharto won the prize that he dreamed of when PM Li assured the president that Beijing would end its support for the Pol Pot regime. It meant peace in Cambodia was closer to realization. And China kept its promise.

One year later, Alatas and his French counterpart, Roland Dumas, cochaired the Paris Peace Conference on Cambodia. The Comprehensive Cambodian Peace Agreements were signed on Oct. 23, 1991, and officially ended the Cambodia-Vietnam war.

This year, Indonesia and China celebrate their 70th anniversary of friendship. However, officially and historically, relations were interrupted for about 23 years before full normalcy returned in 1990.

All was not always good in the relationship between Indonesia and China. Both countries have learned from past mistakes and should make sure they will not happen again.

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Senior editor at The Jakarta Post