Freelance writer Sylvie Tanaga, 33, has been learning Mandarin since she was a little girl – but her first lessons were held secretly in a church in Bandung, as Indonesias second president, Suharto, had for decades banned Chinese Indonesians from publicly expressing their culture.
Tanaga’s paternal grandfather and her maternal grandparents were born in China before migrating to Indonesia, which inspired the family to make sure she kept learning the language.
Her fascination with China and Chinese-Indonesian affairs continued into adulthood. Last August, she embarked on a year-long government scholarship to study Mandarin at Hainan Normal University, though from last month she has been taking online classes from her Bandung home due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“When I was studying in China, the teachers advised us to study Mandarin diligently so it would be easier for us to get a job or to do business with the Chinese,” Tanaga said.
Indonesia this month marks the 70th anniversary of bilateral relations with China. Although Suharto suspended diplomatic ties with Beijing from 1967 to 1990, ties have improved since then – and while the relationship between Beijing and Jakarta remains complicated, many Indonesians like Tanaga see China as a vital economic partner.
China’s investments in Indonesia came to US$4.7 billion with 2,130 projects last year, making it the second-largest investor in the archipelagic nation after Singapore. That figure made up 16.8 per cent of total foreign investments in the country, according to the Indonesian Investment Coordinating Board.
Last year, Chinese tourists made up the second-largest group of foreign visitors to Bali, Indonesia’s tourism hub, accounting for 26.9 per cent of total visitors, according to figures from I Gusti Ngurah Rai International Airport.
Hu Zhiyong, a researcher at the Institute of International Relations of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said China-Indonesia relations had shown “all-round friendly cooperation” in terms of economic partnership as well as cultural, scientific and technological exchanges.
Evan A. Laksmana, a political scientist and senior researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank in Jakarta, said that from Indonesia’s standpoint, issues involving China could easily become “a major domestic political problem” as even small things could snowball into a big “China problem”. “So China as a whole is more ever-present in the minds of policymakers,” he said.
Djauhari Oratmangun, Indonesia’s ambassador to China, last year said that by cooperating with China, Indonesia would be able to grow its digital economy to US$100 billion by 2025.
That view is shared by business leaders like Calvin Neonardi, a third-generation Chinese-Indonesian who is director of the Indonesia China Business Council and vice-secretary general of Indonesia Guangdong Association Federation. He points out that Chinese companies like Tencent and Alibaba – which owns the South China Morning Post – have major stakes in Gojek and Tokopedia, the two largest Indonesian unicorns.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg, and I can see that a large number of innovations in this sector will continue to attract Chinese investments and technologies,” Neonardi said. “It’s a two-way street, in which we will learn much from China economically and financially. Many Indonesians believe China represents the future, in that Indonesia’s economic fortunes will be inevitably and increasingly tied to China.”
A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi, head of the Asean Studies Program at The Habibie Centre think tank in Jakarta and author of Jokowi’s Indonesia and the World, said China was currently Indonesia’s “major economic partner” in a way the United States or Japan was in the past.Teuku Rezasyah, a lecturer in international relations at Padjadjaran University in Bandung, said improved relations between Beijing and Jakarta could be seen in infrastructure like roads, seaports, railways and mining, as China was “bringing high technology and a large workforce” into Indonesia.
President Xi Jinping on April 2 said “China stands ready to support and assist Indonesia in overcoming” the Covid-19 pandemic.
“China is willing to work with Indonesia to continuously deepen cooperation in building the belt and road and push forward the development of their comprehensive strategic partnership,” he said according to state news agency Xinhua, referring to the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s globe-spanning infrastructure plan.
Alibaba founder Jack Ma, through his eponymous foundation and the Alibaba Foundation, has donated 2 million face masks, 150,000 test kits, 20,000 sets of protective gear and 20,000 face shields to Indonesia as well as three other nations in Southeast Asia.
However, the pandemic has seen a drop in Chinese investments and tourist arrivals in Indonesia. Laksmana of the CSIS said with the Covid-19 issue, most major projects, including those undertaken with China, would be “on hold for at least two or three years” as the priority would be on mitigation and public health systems.
“So I’m not convinced that we have enough fiscal space to engage in major projects, whether it’s belt and road-specific or in general,” he said.
Despite the current setback, Hu of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences said Indonesia was an “important” country in the belt and road initiative. “The Indonesian government is very supportive of China’s initiative and actively connects with it,” he said.
Coordinating maritime affairs and investment minister Luhut Pandjaitan last March said Indonesia would propose 28 projects worth US$91.1 billion to Chinese investors. Past projects under the plan included a US$6 billion high-speed rail linking Jakarta and Bandung, set to be completed in 2021, and a US$1.8 billion coal-fired power plant in Banten province that is being built by state-owned China Shenhua Energy.
Almuttaqi of The Habibie Centre said the belt and road plan had been “somewhat slow to take off” in Indonesia. “There are bureaucratic and logistical challenges all investors face in Indonesia, such as resolving land issues and receiving necessary permits.”
Despite the strong diplomatic ties between Beijing and Jakarta, tensions in the South China Sea and controversy over the treatment of Uygur Muslims in China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang add to the lingering anti-China sentimentfelt by some Indonesians.
Jakarta in December lodged a diplomatic protest with Beijing over alleged illegal fishing by Chinese boats within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone off its Natuna Islands, while China said the waters were within its nine-dash line claim in the disputed South China Sea.
As the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia in the past has voiced its support for Rohingyas and Palestinians – but on the Uygur issue, the government’s official stance is that it will not interfere with Beijing’s handling of the ethnic minority, suggesting it is China’s internal affair.
Last December, hundreds of Indonesian Muslims protested in front of the Chinese embassy in Jakarta over the issue, urging Jakarta to pressure Beijing on it.
Rezasyah of Padjadjaran University said Jakarta had privately raised its concerns on the issue, rather than criticising Beijing publicly like some Western governments.
“This way of expressing criticism is in accordance with Chinese culture, and is better understood by China because it does not embarrass it, and allows more recent information to be obtained,” he said.
Laksmana of the CSIS said there would be “genuine political and economic costs” if Indonesia raised the issue, adding that the international community would then point to the struggle for self-determination in the restive region of Papua.
He said the result could be similar to what happened with East Timor, which voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999 due to “the ability of the East Timorese to internationalise the issue”.
Almuttaqi of The Habibie Centre said Indonesia’s silence on the issue “has been interpreted by some as … having been bought off by China’s economic leverage”.
Anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia has spiked following the Covid-19 outbreak, with The Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict pointing out that much of the rhetoric on social media “has been purely racist hate speech”.
“It builds on a long historical base and plays into political concerns in different parts of the public about the dependence [of President Joko Widodo’s government] on China for infrastructure development and foreign investment, especially in the extractive sector,” said the report, which was released this month.
It added that “the number of Chinese workers rose dramatically [after a new mining law was passed in 2009], causing local resentment over pay differentials, perceived preferential hiring of foreigners over locals, culture clashes, pollution and corruption”.
Indonesia’s manpower ministry has told local media there were 40,357 foreign workers from China in the country as of February 3.
Experts said some Indonesians’ hostility towards China could have an impact on the country’s ethnic Chinese minority.
“The simple reality is that a lot of people, [including the] political elite at the local or national level … are either ignorant of the fact that Chinese Indonesians in Indonesia are separate from China as a government and the Chinese people, or they prefer to politically conflate them,” Laksmana of the CSIS said.
He said things were “slowly changing” on a societal level, noting that more Chinese Indonesians were active in politics and involved in charity work, although the polarisation in recent years might be hampering progress in these areas.
For her part, Bandung-based writer Tanaga also thinks China is doing “a great job”, given how it has transformed from the “poor country” her grandparents left into what it is now.
She still sees anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia, but noted it was more obvious during the blasphemy trial of former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok, who is of an ethnic Chinese Christian background and was sentenced to prison in 2017.
For now, the discrimination “seems subtle”, Tanaga said. “Being proud of China’s achievements only because I am Chinese while turning a blind eye to the reality that is happening in Indonesia, for me it is also an act of racism,” she said.