Monday, March 29, 2010

Indonesia Caught in Middle of US, China Power Struggle

Amid cries of “God is Great,” the former chief of staff of the Indonesian Army joined hard-line Muslim activists in a Jakarta ballroom last week to denounce the United States — and praise China as a model of how to stand up to Washington.

“We should do what China has done; America must follow our rules,” declared retired Gen. Tyasno Sudarto. Veiled women and bearded men, seated separately to avoid mingling of the sexes, shouted praise for Allah and jabbed their fists in the air. Another speaker hailed China for defying Washington’s “neoliberal” economic creed.

The boisterous event, organized by Hizbut Tahrir, brought together two groups that don’t usually mix — fervent champions of an Islamic state and zealous secular nationalists. What united them was a shared fury at Washington and the hope that Beijing can put America in its place. Their take on China — a country ruled by an atheistic Communist Party — marks a curious shift in thinking by Islamists and hard-core nationalists who have traditionally viewed Beijing, as well as each other, with deep distrust. The new thinking is a sign of how Beijing’s growing economic and diplomatic power is scrambling old assumptions and alliances, sometimes in volatile and unlikely ways.

For more than four decades — ever since Beijing armed and financed Indonesian communists plotting to seize power in 1965 — China has been viewed by many here as a menace. Fear of China was reinforced by a widespread suspicion, and also jealousy, of Indonesia’s economically-powerful ethnic Chinese minority. In 1998, pro-democracy protests that toppled Suharto degenerated into an anti-Chinese pogrom. It used to be illegal in Indonesia to publicly display Chinese writing and Chinese New Year lion dances were banned.

Such wariness of China has far from vanished but is now balanced by esteem for its economic achievements and its role in shifting the balance of power in world affairs in Asia’s favor. “Lingering suspicion of China is still present but this is offset by admiration for China’s successes,” said Juwono Sudarsono, a former defense minister and professor of international relations at the University of Indonesia.

The fervently anti-American speakers in the Jakarta ballroom don’t represent the mainstream here but their view of China tracks with a broader shift in attitudes. China has won a particularly strong following among those upset with the free-market policy prescriptions of the so-called “Washington consensus,” which many Indonesians blame for a severe economic crisis in the late 1990s.

The rival policy, the so-called “Beijing consensus,” which puts the state at the center of economic development, is seen as a promising alternative “even among some educated Indonesians,” Sudarsono said. But, he added, many realize “it is very hard to imitate the Communist Party of China” in Indonesia, which has spent the last decade building a vibrant democracy on the ruins of Suharto’s authoritarian system.

While China enjoys emotional appeal as an alternative to American power and “neoliberal” economics, it has struggled to win over constituencies more concerned with reality than ideology. For example, Indonesian industrialists and farmers, worried by the prospect of a surge in Chinese imports, have complained about a new free trade agreement that creates a huge free-trade zone comprising China, Indonesia and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. They want the agreement, which went into force Jan. 1, renegotiated.

Washington, for its part, has worked to strengthen already close ties with Jakarta and lift the United States’ reputation with the general public, which plummeted during George W. Bush’s administration. This effort hasn’t been helped by President Barack Obama’s decision to twice postpone visits to Jakarta, where he lived for four years as a boy. But, unlike his predecessor, the president is hugely popular among many Indonesians.

While China has emphasized economics in its ties with Jakarta, Obama has focused on Indonesia’s credentials as a democracy — the third biggest after India and the United States. Washington doesn’t say so publicly, but Indonesia — along with India and Japan — is seen by US officials as a bulwark against the rising influence of authoritarian China.

Indonesia, wary of upsetting China, insists it is not going to gang up on anyone and will pursue a foreign policy guided by what President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono described as the principle of a “million friends and zero enemy.”

A few hours after the White House announced that Obama would put off a March trip to Jakarta until at least June, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa held a press conference and said his government had no hard feelings. And anyway, he added, Jakarta had its hands full preparing for the arrival of another important visitor — the prime minister of China.

Andrew Higgins senior editor at The Washington Post.

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