China’s soft power tested in promoting ties with Indonesia

By Ai Jun Source:Global Times Published: 2018/5/6 23:13:39

Premier Li Keqiang's plane touched down in Indonesia Sunday, the first stop on his first overseas visit since the new cabinet took office in March. The significance of Indonesia in China's diplomacy is clear: the largest economy in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations with the world's largest Muslim population, home to millions of ethnic Chinese, the place where major projects in the Beijing-led Belt and Road initiative - such as the Jakarta-Bandung railway - are being carried out as well as a nation involved in fishery disputes with Beijing.

As Li noted in a signed article published in The Jakarta Post, China has been Indonesia's largest trading partner for seven years in a row, as well as Indonesia's main source of foreign investment.

Rapidly rising economic and trade cooperation stems from stable development of bilateral relations. But discord lurks in the seemingly smooth ties. Earlier this month, Indonesian media Republika said that Indonesian students in China are being taught Communist ideology. Similar fake news is hardly new to local media. By the end of 2016, rumors over "the influx of 10 million illegal Chinese workers into Indonesia" had also spread across the country and Indonesia President Joko Widodo was falsely identified as an agent of influence for Beijing during his 2014 election campaign.

It seems that clouds of anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia have not yet dissolved and the country is still puzzled by uncertainties about China's intention and role in Southeast Asia.

Unlike the West's opportunistic investment in Indonesia, China has provided considerable economic assistance to the country after it was hit hard by the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Beijing not only offered financial aid, but also sent rescue and medical teams to the country after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. These moves gradually neutralized Jakarta's distrust toward China.

The view of ordinary Indonesians toward China is also changing. On knowledge-sharing website Quora, Indonesian internet users claimed that they "look at China in awe" and unlike the 1960s, when Chinese Indonesians could not speak Putonghua, a school can only be considered a good school nowadays if it provides English and Chinese language classes.

Indonesia is entering a phase of rapid development and it shares a concept of common development with China. Widodo's grand maritime vision, turning his country into a global maritime fulcrum, and the Beijing-led 21st century Maritime Silk Road profoundly fit each other. Synergy between the two initiatives will assuredly benefit both. Against this backdrop, skirting around China-related controversies is not an option for Beijing. On the contrary, Beijing should attach more weight to shaping the new image of China in Indonesia. 

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