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Sino-Indonesian ties receive a boost
Publication Date : 07-10-2013
Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Indonesia last week revealed the dramatic upsurge in bilateral relations since Jakarta froze its ties with Beijing following the abortive Indonesian communist coup in 1965. Even in 1990, when relations were restored at the end of the Cold War, their direction was uncertain. But today, there is a marked confluence of material interests between the world's second-largest economy, which could become the largest in a matter of years, and South-east Asia's largest economy, which like China is a member of the Group of 20 nations.
Xi's proposal of a bank to invest in the region's infrastructural development suggested a larger framework in which bilateral ties could thrive. Chinese funds could help answer the demand for road, rail, port and power infrastructure not only in Indonesia, but also in the rest of Asean. The signing of six cooperation agreements in sectors such as maritime and fisheries, tourism and space exploration was a visible aspect of bilateral relations that Xi and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono have upgraded to the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership.
What was no less significant was the degree of political comfort apparent in Xi making a speech to the Indonesian Parliament - unprecedented for a visiting foreign leader. He cited an Indonesian proverb, which says that money can be earned easily but not friendship, to underscore China's desire for strong relations with its neighbours, including Indonesia.
This is a welcome gesture in keeping with the renewed charm offensive that China mounted with Xi's visits to Indonesia and Malaysia. From the Chinese point of view, a strong partnership with Indonesia could help mitigate the consequences of the American pivot to the region, which some Chinese see as an attempt to encircle and contain China militarily.
But it is here that Beijing's own strategic intentions, as manifested in its approach to territorial disputes, will make a great deal of difference to eventual regional outcomes. Xi was reassuring when he said that his country wanted its disputes in the South China Sea to be handled peacefully with talks. Asean, several of whose members are embroiled in those disputes, will watch to see how Beijing matches its words with action. Asean needs to stay united and speak with one voice in its dealings with China, as with the United States.
China and Southeast Asia have a mutual interest in each other's well-being, with trade leading the way. Maritime disputes, contentious though they are since they involve issues of sovereignty, should not be allowed to subvert the natural logic of geography that binds China to Asean.