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  • Indonesia-China Relations:Coming Full Circle?
  • Dewi Fortuna Anwar (bio)

The bilateral relations between Indonesia and the People's Republic of China seem to have come full circle. The current state of relations between Jakarta and Beijing brings to mind the earlier period of close bilateral ties during the later years of President Sukarno's presidency until his fall in late 1965. Although President Soeharto had already normalized relations with China in 1990 — after freezing diplomatic ties in 1967 — bilateral relations between Indonesia and China only improved significantly after the fall of Soeharto in mid-1998. Successive Indonesian presidents since the onset of the Reformasi era have placed great importance in forging closer relations with China, an increasingly important economic powerhouse as well as a major regional and global player. The momentum for enhanced cooperation between Indonesia and China gathered pace during the Yudhoyono presidency (2004–14) with the signing of the "Strategic Partnership" in 2005, which was then elevated to a "Comprehensive Strategic Partnership" in 2013. Under President Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi), Indonesia-China relations have become even closer, especially in the economic field. China is now Indonesia's most important trading partner and a major source of foreign investment for the government's signature infrastructure projects, while Chinese tourists constitute the largest group of visitors to Indonesia.

The increasingly close economic relations between Indonesia and China, particularly under the Jokowi presidency, and their wider social, political and security ramifications have attracted considerable scholarly attention lately, as [End Page 145] well as public scrutiny and concern. Many analysts have underlined the fact that domestic dynamics have always been the primary drivers of Indonesia's foreign policy, and that elite as well as public opinions are divided over the current rise of China, which is seen as both a threat and an opportunity.1 While differences of opinions and competition for power and influence are to be expected in a democracy — and in Indonesia's highly heterogeneous society — some degree of consensus is needed to ensure that a particular policy can be adopted and sustained in the long run. Jakarta-Beijing relations have always, since diplomatic ties were first established in 1950, been complicated. And more than with any other country, relations with China continue to impinge on Indonesian domestic affairs, particularly as a consequence of the significant Chinese-Indonesian population.

The sharp swing in Indonesia's policy from Sukarno's Jakarta-Beijing axis to Soeharto's total freezing of relations with China throughout most of the New Order period was mainly caused by sharp differences in the two leaders' perceptions about threats and priorities and the forces that supported them. With the long period of socio-political control during the New Order era (1966–98), the deep social and ideological cleavages that had characterized Indonesia's early turbulent history had mostly been overcome — but not entirely erased. Political liberalization has opened the path for the re-emergence of identity politics (aliran politics), particularly during Indonesia's highly competitive election cycles. While the rapprochement between Indonesia and China is to be welcomed, and should be nurtured, it must be noted that this particular state of relations is being contested. President Joko Widodo has come under increasing criticism for not sufficiently protecting Indonesia's wider national interests in his pursuit of Chinese foreign investment. Great care must therefore be taken to address all of the issues that have arisen. Left unattended they may jeopardize all the gains that have been made, which in turn could risk the return of the darker period of fraught Jakarta-Beijing relations.

From Close Partnership to Long Estrangement

The ups and downs of Indonesia-China relations from the Sukarno to the Soeharto era have been exhaustively analysed by many scholars. In this section, we will skim over the evolution of the bilateral relations during this earlier period to highlight a number of issues that may continue to colour present and future relations between Jakarta and Beijing. While the past should not be allowed to hold the future hostage, forgetting history may condemn us to repeat it. [End Page 146]

Indonesia, which declared its independence on 17 August 1945 but only achieved complete independence after...


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