Chinese workers the worry, not spies

Indonesia’s foreign policy seems divorced from reality. It’s called bebas-aktif (free and active) and supposed to mean no siding with world powers.

It reads: ‘As a matter of principle, so doing would be incompatible with the country’s national philosophy and identity as implied in Pancasila’, the nation’s five principles of religious devotion, humanitarianism, nationalism, consultative democracy, and social justice.

Well, yes, all fine and dandy, but the time’s coming when the fourth most populous country may have to decide whether it wants to snuggle with the world’s largest (China) or the third (US) as both vie for support.

The US has already rolled up its sleeves and shown tattoos. Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, the failed candidate in last year’s presidential election, was on an armaments shopping spree when warned off buying Russian fighter jets and Chinese naval vessels. That’s according to Bloomberg, and the reports haven’t been denied.

Now it’s academic as Indonesia doesn’t have the cash. Figures from the government agency Statistics Indonesia show the economy withered 5.32 per cent in this year’s second quarter, and is expected to shrink further.

From facts to fear. The US Congress 2020 report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China included this par:

‘… the PRC is very likely already considering and planning for additional overseas military logistics facilities to support naval, air, and ground forces. The PRC has likely considered locations for PLA (People’s Liberation Army) military logistics facilities’ in 12 countries, including Indonesia’.

This is the only reference in the 174-page document and the ‘very likely’ qualification suggests conjecture. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi responded that her country wouldn’t become a military base for anyone, but Congress is flying kites.

The notion of the Chinese seeking a base seems unlikely as they’d know an approach at this stage would rouse nationalist wrath and threaten major infrastructure projects they’re funding. But it seems to be edging closer.

Veteran Asia hand John McBeth has contacts many Indonesian hacks would envy. Writing in The Asia Times he reported a Chinese coast guard cutter working the fringes of Indonesia’s 200-nautical-mile Economic Exclusion Zone ‘is now suspected of trying to stake out the limits of Beijing’s nine-dotted line of historically claimed sovereignty over the South China Sea.

‘The latest incident suggests that Jakarta may sooner or later have to confront the fact that China is now seeking to lay down markers in claiming traditional fishing rights inside Indonesian waters in a clear breach of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.’

Marsudi issued a formal protest to Chinese ambassador Xiao Qian over the alleged intrusion on 12 September.

The resolve to repel Chinese ambitions may weaken as Indonesia faces the same dilemma confronting Australia. Both are heavily dependent on doing business with Beijing while trying to steer their independent foreign policies through contested waters churned by two contesting superpowers.

Ambassador Quin has reminded that his nation’s bilateral business with the archipelago last year was nudging US$80 billion, making it Indonesia’s biggest trading partner – and twice the size of the US.

At a soft-power level, figures were rising fast before Covid-19 struck; two million Chinese tourists annually compared with one million Aussies. Around 10,000 Indonesians were studying in China. (About 8,500 chose Oz unis.) These figures make the renminbi as attractive as our dollars.

Dr Dino Patti Djalal – a former ambassador to the US and founder of the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia – told the South China Morning Post the growing trade meant more Indonesian companies are paying debts in renminbi as ‘the Chinese are pushing for this’.

As reported earlier in this column, Orang Tionghoa (ethnic Chinese Indonesians) have long had a strained relationship with the pribumi, the so-called native Indonesians, even though many families have been present for centuries and are full citizens.

Official figures reveal only three million Orang Tionghoa in Indonesia, though the real statistic may be closer to three per cent of the population, or eight million. Whatever, they wield huge business influence, drawing resentment which sometimes turns violent. The most deadly incident was in 1998 when rioters killed and raped.

Indonesian boosters like to describe their nation as ‘multicultural’ but the definition is different from countries which foster immigration. In Indonesia it means the many ethnic groups scattered across what used to be the Dutch East Indies are living together in the ‘unitary state’. How many? Figures swing wildly from 600 to more than 1,000, though only nine can muster more than two per cent of the population of 270 million.

Chinese loans have financed great swathes of infrastructure in the past five years. Sinologist Leo Suryadinata writes that around 1,000 Chinese state and private companies are involved in electronics, mining and construction.

In the week when 160 seasonal workers from Vanuatu arrived in Darwin to pick fruit for farmers who can’t get – or don’t want – unemployed Australians – a similar number of Chinese workers landed in Indonesia.

The men were brought to Bintan in the Riau Islands, 40 kilometres south of Singapore, to work on an aluminium smelter and coal-fired power station. The total number of Chinese at that location is now 450.

The company involved claims it’s already employing 3,000 locals and the foreigners, known as xinyimin (‘new migrants’) will be gone by the end of the year.

Three months earlier Indonesians in Southeast Sulawesi protested the arrival of 500 Chinese to build a nickel smelter. There are reported to be around 30,000 Chinese temporary workers in the Republic, mainly employed on infrastructure projects.

Importing labour is part of the deal with site managers arguing the xinyimin are specialists and need to take instructions in Chinese languages, which few locals understand. The contracts apparently don’t include skills transfers. Officially Indonesia has more than seven million unemployed but because many are underemployed, and data collection suspect, the number is far higher.

In the Australian situation, the reasons for importing labour are more basic. Deputy Nationals Leader David Littleproud told the ABC: ‘There’s a real aversion from the Australian workforce to go and pick fruit.’ Critics claim that’s too simplistic because it ignores closed borders and alleged worker exploitation.

Whether the xinyimin are being ripped off in Indonesia isn’t known. Scuttlebutt alleges the men stay on and take other jobs though that seems unlikely. Apart from the language difficulties the workers keep to themselves and don’t mix with the locals. In a paper for Singapore’s Yusof Ishak Institute, Suryadinata wrote:

‘The relationship between xinyimin and Chinese Indonesians are generally not close, especially since the younger generation of Chinese Indonesians have lost an active command of Mandarin.

‘There is therefore a new Chinese migrant community emerging in Indonesia that may come into conflict with Chinese Indonesians who consider these new migrants as competitors. Xinyimin may also become an issue for the indigenous population who see them as exploiters and foreigners.’

So far Beijing’s policies concern threats to marine territory and jobs rather than fifth columnists and human rights abusers, as in Australia. Little concern about spies and campus influencers.

That approach is unlikely to change while the Joko Widodo government remains in debt to the PRC. The country with more Muslims than any other nation is even going soft on the issue of Muslim Uyghur allegedly persecuted in Xinjiang province.

A report from the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict quotes Dr Munajat Stain, a senior aide to President Widodo: ‘We did not want to engage in their (Uyghur persecution) narrative because it would only empower the Islamists and radicals belonging to the opposition’ (inside Indonesia).

The Widodo administration is purchasing more than labour, smelters and services, it’s also buying the Chinese line that the Uyghur are separatists, a much-feared ideology because it might fracture the ‘unitary state’ . No calls to investigate ‘re-education camps’ and the Covid-19 source. It wouldn’t do to prod the Big Panda.

Coronavirus update: Officially, 271,000 cases and 10,300 deaths, including 107 doctors and 74 nurses across Indonesia. Jakarta and other cities in limited lockdown. Testing rates are among the lowest in the region – unsurprising as rapid tests cost around AUD 15 or a day’s wage for a labourer – and fears that hospitals are places for dying, not healing.

The WHO recommends 270,000 tests every week. The number is currently under 100,000.

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Duncan Graham has been a journalist for more than 40 years in print, radio and TV. He is the author of People Next Door (UWA Press) and winner of the Walkley Award and Human Rights awards. He is now writing for the English language media in Indonesia from within Indonesia.

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