Monday, May 9, 2016

Reading China's diplomatic strategy in Indonesia

DIPLOMATIC TOKEN? Corruption suspect Samadikun Hartono (center) was flanked by State Intelligence Agency chief Sutiyoso (left) and his deputy for foreign affairs Sumiharjo Pakpahan (right) in his arrival in Jakarta following the convict's recent arrest in Shanghai, China. 

Photo courtesy of Wendra Ajistyatama/Jakarta Post  

China has complied to Indonesia's demands to extradite Samadikun Hartono, a corruption fugitive who was alleged to embezzle Rp 169 billion (US$12.8 billion) of state bailout funds disbursed in the aftermath of the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis, just moments after his arrest in Shanghai.

Initially, there were tittle-tattles that Beijing demanded the transfer of four Chinese Uyghurs, who were arrested by police in East Indonesia on terrorism charges, in a prisoner-swap agreement. But, China eventually agreed to send back the Indonesian corruption suspect without getting any tangible in return.

Yet focusing the diplomatic discourse on the prospect of prisoner-swap agreement means one is misunderstanding China's domestic politics and its foreign policy principles.

First, a prisoner-swap deal for the Uyghurs, who allegedly planned to set up terrorism acts in Indonesia, smacks no logic of China's foreign policy ideology. China has long been known as the upholder of "non-interference" foreign policy strategy, as Beijing always tries to back off from meddling in its interlocutors' internal affairs - in this case Indonesia's national security - when carrying out business or diplomatic relations.

This sets China apart from other Western countries, notably the US, which always scrutinizes and reproaches the human rights and political system principles of countries they are dealing with. All over the world, China's foreign aids neither impose specific political conditions nor require specific reprisals in return.

Second, although it is indeed every nation's responsibility to protect its citizens overseas, it is important to learn that bringing home the arrested Chinese Uyghur detainees would bring little political benefits for China domestically. The bitter truth is that the local Chinese Han people, who account for 90 percent of the Mainland's total population, rarely see Uyghur people as one of them, and vice versa.

The Uyghur Muslims, who have distinctive looks, different values and even their own native language, are proud of their own identity of being different with the Chinese Han people. Predictably, separatism or even terrorism movements become problems in their home province of Xinjiang, an autonomous administration in northwest China that is closer to the capitals of Kazakhstan and Afghanistan than to Beijing.

So, when Indonesian Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly initially claimed that the extradition of Samadikun from Shanghai could not proceed smoothly as China had "demanded something in return", yet then suddenly Beijing reversed its course, we could cogently guess that the whole turn of events might actually be an astute diplomatic maneuver engineered to appease Jakarta.

Such a maneuver is relevant to be discussed because, in the future, we are likely to see more diplomatic "kindheartedness" from China - wrapped in no-strings-attached assistance or ostensibly generous political moves - as part of the Mainland's concerted and overarching foreign policy strategy to boost its regional soft power, an area that Beijing is lacking at the moment.

Within the international community, China still commands less respect than it actually deserves. China is respected no more but its economic and military might, given the nation's lack of diplomatic prowess and its absenteeism in strategic global issues.

However, while China tends to hold back from intervening in affairs in Middle East or Europe, it cares so much about issues pertaining its national interests, such as Taiwan or South China Sea.

As the South China Sea has seen intensifying tensions recently, surely there isn't any better chess move for China than winning the support from Pacific-Rim nations, and especially Indonesia, the largest economy in Southeast Asia and the de facto leader of ASEAN?

One possibility here is that China, perhaps, is feeling apologetic to Indonesia. From Indonesians' point of view, Beijing's response to the clash between a Chinese coast guard vessel and an Indonesian government sea patrol last month in Natuna waters near Riau Islands might look rude and somewhat ungracious, particularly if one sees it from the Javanese cultural perspective of President Joko Widodo, who so far has attempted to build stronger ties with China.

In that incident, China argued by including part of Natuna waters in its territorial map, according to a report by Indonesian state-run news agency Antara, which quoted Cmdre. Fahru Zaini, an assistant deputy to the chief Indonesian security minister. China's official statement also said that the vessel was in its traditional fishing grounds.

The least things that China should do now is affronting Indonesia, with which it supposedly has no overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, and offending Jokowi. Under the President's leadership, Indonesia became the co-founder of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The President has also granted China the rights to develop the archipelago's first high-speed railway connecting Jakarta to Bandung, thus snubbing the seven years lobbying of Japan, who was the first to float the idea.

The US$5.5 billion Jakarta-Bandung railway was particularly crucial as it is slated to be the entry point for Chinese investors to other lucrative infrastructure projects envisioned by Jokowi, such as dams and power plants, where Chinese firms are known to have the technological expertise.

Recently, in east Aceh waters, the Indonesian navy detained a Chinese vessel with 25 Chinese nationals and four Indonesians on board, for allegation of illegal fishing, trade and slavery. How China responds to this issue would be interesting: Beijing surely has learned that it could be counterproductive to deal with Jakarta with a rigid and overly assertive diplomatic approach.

Under President Jokowi, ties between the two nations now are arguably in the strongest level since the leftist leadership of President Sukarno more than 60 years ago. The Chinese might not want to make the bond untidy because strong diplomatic ties with Indonesia is crucial for the Mainland's own diplomatic and economic interests.

This article was published in The Jakarta Post on Monday, May 9 2016

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