Reimagining Indonesia-China Relationship

I visited China for ten days from 18 to 27 April 2024. The journey covered three cities, two hi-tech companies, a number of government institutions, six academic institutions, various museums, and surely a lot of delicious food. For me, it was the longest working visit to a single country in the last decade or so. I have witnessed a lot and I have learnt a lot.

The visit was made possible due to a program organised by the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Jakarta. We, seven Indonesian scholars from different disciplines, took part in the program and each of us is left with deep impression. The journey has helped us understand China better by witnessing closely different events, places, traditions, and listening to different views from Chinese Scholars, government officials and ordinary people. Here is my short note.

China is about technology advancement. My visit to Chinese hi-tech companies such as Envision and Huawei enabled me to see far beyond sophisticated technology. China is a country with grand visions and insane level of persistence in realizing  those visions. China has apparently focussed on solving problems faced by the society, including problems that have yet to come. One good thing I have noticed during the visit was the commitment for the environment. It is certainly not only about profit but also people and planet.

In addition to technological advancement, China is insanely serious about preserving culture and values. A visit to Terracotta Mausoleum, for example, showed how much China cares about its ancient civilization. For China, preserving artefacts is not merely about protecting physical objects created thousands years ago. It is about keeping values and pride about how great China was in the past and, especially, giving young generation good foundation to maintain and carry with them the same spirit of being a great country.

My April visit to China was not the first one. I did visit Beijing for the first time in 1999. I saw how Chinese society has transformed into a modern one. To me, implementing advanced technology might be easy when a country is blessed with wealth but seeing how society has transformed its behaviour is a true sign of progress. It is simple! Cities are clean, people are in compliance with traffic regulation, and things are in order.

In general, I admire academic and education development in China. We visited or interacted with Fudan University, Shanghai Institute for International Studies, Xi’an Jiaotong University, Xi’an International Studies University, NIIS CASS, and Peking University.  I noticed how open Chinese academic institutions are to international community. I am particularly impressed by the fact that China has prominent Indonesian study centres with students focusing on learning Bahasa Indonesia. China is apparently preparing itself to better deal with Indonesia in the future.

One important note during the visit is about religious affairs. I heard quite a lot about religion in China and many of them were not inspiring. I am a Hindu, myself, but Indonesia is an Islam-predominantly country so I too have concern on how Islam is treated. We visited different mosques in China for our Muslim friends to pray. I was positively surprised. I enjoyed the ambience of all the mosques we visited. I saw my Muslim friends praying just like what they usually do in Indonesia. They do that without hesitation, probably knowing that their right for practicing religion is well protected. I was being sceptical and also had discussion with local people to dig deeper. Certainly, we have yet to discover every single issue about religious affairs in China but our short visit and interaction has left positive impressions.

Personally, I have learned the issue of South China Sea conflict for the last decade or two. I also brought this issue during my visit to China. I have read a lot of papers about the issue and understood how Chinese academia have their own views about the issue. My objective was to hear myself their candid and frank views about the issue. Having exchanged ideas about the South China Sea with some Chinese academia, I understand better Chinese position. It is certainly too early to judge and I was not there to solve any problem regarding the issue. At least I can see room for discussion and the first important step in solving a conflict is understanding other parties’ position. I know that the South China Sea issue will not be solved in anytime soon but at least I know that we will keep talking about it with good will and intention. I think, we will need to keep listening to each other, especially when we disagree.

In the future, Indonesia and China will keep the already good relationship. The visit of the President Elect, Prabowo Subianto, to China based on President Xi’s invitation is a positive sign of the good intention to maintain such relationship. We certainly will have differences along the way but I have no doubt that we will be able to talk about it. No matter how difficult the situation we face, we can never deny our geographical destiny that we are close to each other in the region. We cannot afford not to understand each other.

One of the best way to enhance understanding between Indonesia and China is education exchange. This should involve more students and professors from Indonesia and China. Our current stage is far from ideal. At Universitas Gadjah Mada, for example, we received more than 40 Chinese students in 2023 but sent only 4 Indonesian students to China. Such imbalance needs to be addressed. With increasing interdependencies between Indonesia and China, the need for collaboration has never been more pressing.

With improved understanding through regular exchanges of people and ideas, I am convinced that our two nations will not only get along well but will also play positive roles in the region.

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