October 27, 2022
JAKARTA – One good thing about Xi Jinping’s reelection to his third five-year term is that it gives other nations greater predictability about where China is moving. Already the largest economy in the world, China is trying to live up to its role, if not ambition, as a superpower, rivaling the only other big power today, the United States.
The bigger question the rest of the world is asking is, are we seeing the emergence of a benevolent or a ruthless superpower?
The just-ended Chinese Communist Party congress in Beijing has cemented Xi’s power, breaking with the tradition of general secretaries serving only two five-year terms. At home, this gives the Chinese people a sense of continuity, although not necessarily stability, of China’s policy direction. For the rest of the world, the message is clear, for the next five years, we will have to deal with Xi, who is even more powerful now than the one we have come to know these last 10 years.
Xi led the transformation from the peaceful rise of China that we saw in the first decade of the millennium to the more assertive rise of an empire with ever-expanding tentacles. The Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) is his foreign policy signature, investing heavily in the construction of economic infrastructure in countries around the world, stretching from the South Pacific islands, through maritime Southeast Asia, East Asia, all the way to the Middle East, the horn of Africa, West and Central Asia, the Mediterranean and Europe.
This is a game only big powers play. And China is using its growing military, political and economic clout to expand its power and influence globally. Besides ensuring its security, it is doing this out of other national interests, including securing the supplies of energy resources, food and raw materials for its burgeoning population of 1.4 billion people.
With Beijing flexing its muscles, this has inevitably impacted the geopolitical security of the region and the world. The US is rallying its allies in the West and Asia to contain China’s rise. Signals from Beijing are disconcerting, such as Xi’s determination to reunify Taiwan with China, and military maneuvers in the contested waters in the South China Sea and East China Sea.
Indonesia has rightly refused to join these emerging anti-China alliances even though we have some issues with the recurrent trespassing of Chinese fishing boats in our waters in the Natuna Sea.
A less confrontational approach is called for since China is Indonesia’s main trading partner, a major source of investment and foreign aid and given our geographical proximity. Containment is not the way forward. Collaboration and persuasive diplomacy make far more sense in dealing with China to help it become a benevolent superpower.
As the fourth largest country in the world, Indonesia has some leverage in negotiating with China. Familiarity with Xi helps and since President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has met with the Chinese leader more than 10 times since 2014, he should feel comfortable enough to raise issues of concern for Indonesia in their next meetings.
With ASEAN, Indonesia has been lobbying Beijing to sign a code of conduct, which requires China to refrain from using power in resolving territorial disputes with other countries in the South China Sea. Indonesia is also pushing China to accept the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific as the basis for a new regional architecture that is open, inclusive and rules-based.
As we anticipate Xi’s next foreign policy moves, our own independent and active policy principle mandates us to take the initiative. This applies no less in our dealing with China.