Jakarta. China has a lot of things to do if it wants to convince the Indonesian public to be supportive of its new and ambitious Silk Road project, observers here say.
While the Indonesian government has expressed interest in welcoming what others have called aggressive maneuvering by China to promote its Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, little can be said about whether or not the Indonesian public will support participation — or not oppose it at least.
The Chinese initiative involves plans for massive infrastructure spending to boost trade and economic cooperation between China and other countries along the “Belt and Road” — a land and a sea route that will connect China to Europe, the Middle East and Africa through Central Asia, the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.
'No impression whatsoever'
Rene L. Pattiradjawane, the chairman of Indonesia's Center for Chinese Studies, said last week that many Indonesians were surprisingly unaware of China's growing geo-economic and geopolitical significance.
Citing a study conducted last year by the think tank, he said when asked what they knew China best for, respondents came out with “traditional medicine” as the top answer.
“The second top answer is, China is known for a having strong culture. Its communist ideology came third,” Rene told a discussion in Jakarta last week.
He said the nearly 1,100 respondents were middle-class Indonesians living in 10 major cities.
“The Indonesian public, even those living in big cities, are unaware of China's growing significance as a rising economic, financial and military power,” Rene commented. “China's economic development for the past 30 years appears to have left no impression whatsoever among middle-class Indonesians.”
He added that China was however the least favored among major powers whose presence had long been felt in Indonesia.
According to the result of the same poll, Rene said, Japan was the country most favored among Indonesians, followed by the United States, India and finally China. Only four countries were cited in the survey.
“China may have overexpectations on our [China-Indonesia] relationship,” Rene said.
'China seen as a threat'
Agus Syarip Hidayat, an economics researcher with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), said although the Indonesian government was increasingly seeing China as a potential strategic partner — especially in terms of investment — that was not the case with the Indonesian private sector.
“Based on our research, there are mixed perceptions [on China] among Indonesian businesses, but in general they perceive China as a threat,” he said.
This, Agus added, is especially true among small and medium-scale Indonesian businesses, many of which have seen similar enterprises close down because they could not compete with cheap products imported from China — which have been flooding Indonesian markets for the past decade.
That is despite the fact that many Chinese products have gained notoriety here for being of poor quality, Agus said.
“If this keeps happening, in the long term [stronger] resistance may arise here against Chinese products,” he said.
“To anticipate that, cooperation is needed in the investment sector. China should not just export goods here. It must also invest in the real sector, where competition is tight. That's what Japan has been doing. That is why Japan is the favorite.”
Both Rene and Agus were speaking at a forum attended by Chinese officials and Indonesian civil society representatives.
The Chinese delegation was led by Guo Yezhou, the vice minister of the international department of China's Communist Party Central Committee, who is also the council chairman of Chinese government's think tank, the China Center for Contemporary World Studies (CCCWS).
Guo said he wanted to know what the opinion of the Indonesian public was on China, and also concerning the Belt and Road plans.
He added that part of his job now was to ask relevant research organizations in the region to join the Silk Road Think Tank Association, which has been specifically established by the CCCWS to examine obstacles faced and explore opportunities offered by the Belt and Road.
“I have recently been tasked to invite other research organizations around China to examine problems that are of our mutual concern, to build networks and invite our friends in Indonesia to join that network as well,” Guo told the forum through an interpreter.
Guo made his Jakarta visit less than two weeks after Chinese Deputy Premier Liu Yandong attended a larger forum in Bali, also commissioned by the Chinese government, to promote Belt and Road among member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), of which Indonesia is a key member.
Several Asean members states are involved in territorial disputes with China.