While the US flounders, China plants ideas and friendship in Indonesia

Of all the corroded clichés used in reporting the US election, the rustiest claimed ‘the whole world was watching.’ 

It wasn’t in the Indonesian streets where the concerns were more parochial:  Rooves springing wet-season leaks, the lack of imported fruit (there are allegedly some rotten deals involving licences and preferred traders starving suppliers), and problems with the government’s health insurance policy under assault by the industry.

Current affairs TV was focussing on changes in labour laws and Islamic terrorism in Europe.

Nor was Trump v Biden on the agenda at the top end of town, even on poll eve. While the Anglosphere focussed on the US chaos which purports to be democracy in action, China was busy squirreling away, building   its influence in Southeast Asia.

On 2 November the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia ran a two-hour Virtual Jakarta Forum on ASEAN-China Relations 2020.  The plan was to ‘map a way forward for ASEAN-China economic cooperation towards a sustainable, innovative, and resilient growth in the region.’

That’s normally the job of sequestered diplomats, not an NGO driving policy, but the FPCI is becoming Indonesia’s de-facto Kemlu – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – led by the pedestrian Retno Marsudi, a former ambassador to the Netherlands.

There were a couple of offhand comments about the US at the forum, but otherwise the focus was on a near future where China is deeply involved in the region’s trade, aid, finance – and almost every other facet of society.  This included paying with rupiah and renminbi rather than US dollars.

On 14 November the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is expected to be signed. This is a proposed free trade agreement between ASEAN’s ten members with five of their FTA partners – Australia, China, Japan, NZ and South Korea.

The world’s largest democracy was originally involved but pulled out last November over fears the ‘Made in India’ programme would be neutered by the deal, and its generic medicine manufactures hit by copyright rules. Despite this absence, the remaining 15 countries carry 30 per cent of the world’s population and close to 30 per cent of its GDP.

It was clear from comments at the FPCI forum that China sees the RCEP as a major opportunity to expand and bed-down its interests in Southeast Asia, while other speakers seemed resigned.  The pragmatists recognise Indonesia’s trade and aid ties with Beijing are pushing the world’s third-largest democracy away from Washington.  According to Indonesia’s Finance Ministry, the nation’s debt to China is AUD 25.2 billion.

Although negotiations have dragged on for eight years the RCEP has rarely featured in the Australian mainstream media. The Asian press has been reporting ‘some key players…especially Japan and Australia (have) nagging concerns about a pact in which China’s presence looms ever larger.’

Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has been quoted as saying worsening diplomatic ties between China and Australia would not get in the way of the progress of the RCEP.

Among the 200 plus participants and onlookers at the FPCI forum were diplomats and scholars from Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam.  Australia was not represented.

Deng Xijun, China’s Ambassador to ASEAN effused about the shift from ‘pandemic control to economic recovery’, the ‘stability of the region’ and the roles his country would take if and when Covid-19 retreats.

These included the manufacture and distribution of a Chinese vaccine should one become available, the extension of the Belt and Road programme of road, rail and port expansion, and improvements in the supply chain, including more direct flights from Chinese cities to the archipelago.

‘We share the Asian values of solidarity and collaboration,’ he said.  Decoded this means the Chinese have the language, deep contacts and subtle skills in handling obstructive bureaucrats that Westerners lack or can’t access.

China is Indonesia’s top trading partner, taking raw materials, mainly coal.  Former Indonesian trade minister Gita Wirjawan, who was educated at Harvard, told the forum that the US had been ‘disingenuous and disrespectful’ in its approach to global warming concerns.

These exports may suffer if China goes ahead with its emissions-reduction programme, leaving Indonesia with limited markets for its low-grade coal.  About 80 per cent of production is exported.

As an NGO the FPCI is rapidly becoming the leading initiator of accessible and informed comment on international affairs.  It’s already eclipsing the Centre for Strategic and International Studies which claims to be Indonesia’s leading think tank on social, international, political and economic issues.

The CSIS was founded in 1971 by a group of mainly Catholic fervent anti-Communist Chinese businessmen and generals and advised the despotic second president Soeharto on foreign affairs until the 1980s.  It has since tried to reshape itself as mildly liberal and inclusive, though still tainted by its partisan past.

So far the FPCI does not appear to be in any party’s pockets, though its founder, former Ambassador to the US Dr Dino Patti Djalal, made a lukewarm bid for the presidency as an independent in 2014.  He was educated at the left-leaning London School of Economics and was spokesman for the nation’s sixth president (2004-2014), former General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, leader of Partai Demokrat.

The FPCI’s 14 ‘partners’ includes the embassies of Australia, Denmark, the EU, Netherlands and Japan and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Foreign Affairs has long been seen as an esoteric discipline accessible only to high-born Francophones.  (Djalal’s dad Hasjim Djalal is a former Indonesian Ambassador to Germany, Canada and the UN.)  The FPCI is making it more democratic, and before the pandemic drew hundreds of young people to its big free events.

It says its ‘mission is to promote and shape positive Indonesian internationalism throughout the nation and to the world.

‘We want to bring foreign policy to the grassroots, and to provide a dynamic meeting point where everyone interacts as equals. We aim to be an independent, credible voice for Indonesia’s foreign policy.’  It’s certainly seen by Beijing as the place to plant ideas knowing they’ll get propagated.

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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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