The dragon in the room next door

He’s one of China’s most high-ranking and experienced diplomats yet he was caught on TV squirming when confronted by video showing manacled men shunted onto trains. The prisoners were alleged to be Chinese Uyghur, a Muslim ethnic group.

The interrogator was the BBC’s Andrew Marr in faraway London getting stuck into the Chinese ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming. The video has been watched around the world. Scores of countries have expressed outrage. Although only 4.4 per cent of the UK population is Muslim, China’s alleged mistreatment of the Uyghur is a major international human rights issue.

Logically it should have been equally important in Indonesia where 88 per cent of the 270 million citizens are said to follow Islam, and disquiet about China’s activities is widespread.

Commented Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch in Jakarta: ‘If human rights violations of this scope and scale were taking place in Europe or the United States, one would expect Muslim-majority countries, including Indonesia, to have erupted in protest. But so far, there has been little to no response. Why? Because these abuses are taking place in China.’

The expanded answer lies in Indonesia’s economic dependency on the superpower, and Chinese success in manipulating public opinion. The Wall Street Journal reported last year: ‘Beijing has run a concerted campaign to convince Indonesia’s religious authorities and journalists that the re-education camps in China’s north-western Xinjiang region are a well-intentioned effort to provide job training and combat extremism.’

Some beneficiaries of their hosts’ largesse bought the Chinese version of jolly students in vocational training centres and not concentration camps, so persuaded the government to mute complaints. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said she’d raised concerns in private meetings with her counterpart Wang Yi, but didn’t elaborate.

The Palace later told journalists the government will not interfere in China’s ‘domestic affairs’.

Indonesia has first-class TV talent and robust talk shows, but some issues are handled with great caution or not at all. Among them is the Army-managed killing of an estimated half-million real or imagined Communists in 1965-66. Another is overt criticism of China, Indonesia’s banker and business partner.

One of those bucking the norm has been the video production company Narasi TV which has made a documentary claiming Indonesians have been hoodwinked by Beijing’s propaganda.

Narasi (narration) was founded in part by Australian-educated Najwa Shihab, the sharpest presenter on Indonesian TV. The company says its values uphold ‘anti-corruption, tolerance and participation … bringing forward issues that are often neglected by the mainstream national media.’

As in Australia, some find it handy to conflate the Chinese state, ethnic Chinese individuals and Communism.

Founding president Soekarno was a friend of Russia and China during the Cold War. After the 1965 coup, he was replaced by General Soeharto who embraced the West. Communism was officially forbidden along with Chinese calligraphy. Diplomatic ties were suspended.

Dr Philips Vermonte reckons that although most bans (but not Communism) have since been removed, their legacy still infects domestic politics.

Last week the director of the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies spoke at an Australia-Indonesia Centre webinar on geopolitics. He said his country walked a ‘fine line’ on handling China: ‘Indonesians do not understand China and the Chinese don’t understand Indonesia.’

He could have said the same about Australians.

As reported earlier in this column, although Indonesia officially has only three million Orang Tionghoa (ethnic Chinese citizens), they wield huge business influence, drawing resentment which sometimes turns violent.

Like Australia, the world’s fourth most populous nation relies heavily on trade with China, taking AUD 48 billion worth of goods last year. It’s also Indonesia’s largest export destination, sending minerals, oils, timber and other produce worth AUD 39 billion.

The government of President Joko Widodo has been desperate for overseas money to improve the Republic’s crumbling and rusting infrastructure. China has supplied AUD 6.75 billion, making it the second-largest investor after Japan. Most is for public works, like toll roads, new railways and ports, though not without conditions many resent.

These include the use of imported Chinese labour – supposedly senior engineers with specialised knowledge to handle tricky projects – but also for lower-level jobs that unions say could and should be done by the pribumi (indigenous Indonesians). Project managers claim workers need to understand instructions in Mandarin.

There have been outbreaks of hostility towards the outsiders. Widodo has been keen to damp down criticism lest unrest leads to riots, frightening away not only the investors but also cashed-up citizens ready to flee should Sinophobia erupt.

There have been pro-Uyghur demos in Jakarta but they’ve mustered only a few hundred wavers of well-printed placards carrying slogans in English.

Commented Harsono: ‘Many of these groups have also rallied against Indonesia’s religious minorities such as Christians and Ahmadiyya (an Islamic sect), so their actions seem more self-interested than principled.’

Chinese PR has cleverly exploiting the pandemic by getting Indonesia to enter a cluster seeking a Covid-19 vaccine. This is being researched by Padjadjaran University’s Med School in Bandung, West Java. The lead partners are Chinese biopharmaceutical Sinovac Biotech and the Indonesian state-owned pharmaceutical company Bio Farma.

Bizarrely, Widodo has told the State uni to have a vaccine in production within three months, leading to media stories implying the race has been won. Hard-headed scientists have warned that testing will be arduous and any prize elusive, but like Trump’s flawed pronouncements the President’s orders have caught the headlines.

The US and Australia have together given 200 ventilators; media photos showed boxes stamped USAID. We’ve also sent AUD 4.9 million to UNICEF to help response and recovery, but missed out on the hoo-ha.

Chinese donors have flown 40 tonnes of medical supplies into Jakarta, garnering positive publicity. Mask-laden Boeing 777 freighters touching down make for better pictures than press statements.

There’s been nothing soft and subtle about Washington’s activities in the region. This month it has been video of screaming jets, swivelling missile launchers and the USS Ronald Reagan cruising the South China Sea to keep the vital trade passage ‘free and open’.

Gathered around the nuclear-powered supercarrier like ducklings paddling around mum, have been one Japanese and five Australian warships. One was the RAN flagship HMAS Canberra making the point the exercise isn’t token.

Admiral George Wikoff told the WSJ: ‘The purpose is to show an unambiguous signal to our partners and allies that we are committed to regional security and stability.’

That should please Indonesia but it hasn’t joined the fleet. The Republic’s foreign policy strategy has long been ‘free and active’ with the definition malleable. It’s nervous of getting close to any major power.

This is despite concerns at China’s maritime territorial claims and fishers poaching in Indonesian waters. Indonesia has upgraded defence at the Natuna Islands (about 1,000 km north of Jakarta) and told the world its sovereignty is ‘non-negotiable’.

Tagging along with the Westerners would have reinforced that message and provided useful training, but the PRC might have labelled Indonesia’s leaders as Trump’s lackeys.

Indonesia doesn’t export barley, beef or wine. But it knows what happens to countries which do sell such goods and offend their patrons.

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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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