China, a single name with so many meanings attached to it. For the rest of the world in 1989, right after the Tiananmen Incident, the name stood for a ruthless authoritarian government willing to brutally murder many innocent protesters to maintain the power of its elites. A truly despicable sight to behold.
Decades have passed since then. Politicians come and go in China and the rest of the world. Now we see China as a country with unparalleled economic growth. The world today sees China as a superpower candidate in the 21st century to rival the United States. Some (Donald Trump and his supporters come to mind) despise the fact but others are willing to accept the new reality and even pleased to see a new balance of power rather than the sole hegemonic power of the US.
The human rights records of the current Chinese government aren’t the best in the world, but neither are those of many current global leaders such as Donald Trump of the United States, Kim Jong-un of North Korea, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines — to name just of few of them. Even the Hong Kong protesters who are vehemently against the Chinese government probably wouldn’t compare the current elites in Beijing with those in power during the Tiananmen tragedy.
So what about Indonesia? Unfortunately China is a target of hatred for all the wrong reasons by some of my countrymen. Some think that China is trying to silently infiltrate our country borders to spread communism. The ruling party in China is indeed the Communist Party, but spreading the ideology to anywhere is hardly something they are interested in.
If anything, they even seem to be trying to spread capitalism in the world through Chinese global companies such as Alibaba, Xiao Mi, Tencent, and many more. This of course would benefit them by pilling more dollars into their national bank accounts.
No, I don’t want to defend the Chinese government here. China is definitely not an innocent and harmless country. But we have to see it through the right perspective. As soon-to-be superpower, China seems to be not so different from other superpower nations of the past. The Romans at their peak invaded and enslaved many nations. The British Empire didn’t seem to care much about enslaving but invaded even more nations. The current superpower, i.e. the United States, is a lot more civilized by not blatantly invading nations. But let’s not forget who destabilized the Middle East with its military invasion which eventually led to the rise of global terror network the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Now China is starting to bare its fangs as a global political power. The case is apparent in the current South China Sea dispute. A conflict broke out as many have long expected. It involved seven nations, all with substantial navies and covered the area of the South China Sea. With seven countries, each with substantial firearms, it was a wonder that all escaped without heavy penalties. Sure there was a Malaysian battleship attack on a Vietnamese fisherman ship which resulted in one Vietnamese fisherman getting killed. But outside of that incident, it was mostly tension and loud words.
It all started out with China’s ambition in gaining more control in the region. According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, since 2013 the Chinese government has been building artificial islands in the region. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimates that the value of global trade through the South China Sea reached US$3.37 trillion or one-third of the global figure. Surely the two facts aren’t just coincidence.
Even the always calm and composed Japanese have started to speak out on the matter. Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono said in a recent exclusive interview with CNN that China is deliberately trying to change the status quo in the South China Sea. They are creating hundreds of miles of a string of highly fortified artificial islands across the South China Sea. China’s action risks provoking a stern response from the international community and “needs to be forced to pay a high cost”.
Such a strong message has been rarely heard from Japan before. However, it is completely understandable considering Chinese actions in the region in the last decade.
Indonesia has been a good neighbor to its fellow Asian countries. Our relations with them have been relatively positive, but now it is time for our government to take a firmer stance in the dispute. Like Japan, we need to be stricter against China’s shady tactics, but not in a militaristic way. Diplomacy should always take precedence. We are not the only one against the Chinese in this territorial dispute. We need to band together with neighbors sharing the same interest in this regional issue. I’m sure our President who has shown high level of political fluency in the recent years can be the main character in resolving the dispute.
Wimar Witoelar is the founder of InterMatrix Communications and was the spokesperson for the late President Abdurrahman Wahid in 1999-2001. Mahisa Dwi Prastowo is a consultant at InterMatrix Communications.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Jakarta Globe.