70 Years of China-Indonesia Cooperation: From Asian-African Conference to the Belt and Road

April 13, 2020 marks the 70th anniversary of China-Indonesia diplomatic relations. In 1950, Indonesia established diplomatic relations with China and became the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic.

The warm friendship between the two continues to the 1955 Asian-African Conference, also known as the Bandung Conference, as both countries share the value of anti-colonialism. The spirit eventually resulted in the creation of the Non-Alignment Movement, a movement of 120 developing nations that were not formally aligned to the — at the time, in the context of Cold War — the Western Bloc and the Eastern Bloc.

Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (left) and Indonesian President Soekarno (center) at the 1955 Asian-African Conference.

The Bandung Conference experience is especially close to me, because during the China-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program 2018 Delegation’s visit to Bandung that I joined, the delegation paid a visit to the plenary hall of the conference, which now is a museum named the Asian-African Museum.

The delegation learned a lot about the history of relationship of each other’s countries back to the early days of their respective countries’ foundings. It is such a shame for me as an Indonesian to have not been able to learn in-depth at school about how developing countries were “ganging up” together against major powers during the Cold War era — which to me, is such a cool thing.

However, the spirit lives.

Fifty years forward, the spirit was still embodied, and is continued through the establishment of the New Asian–African Strategic Partnership during the 2005 Asian African Summit in Jakarta.

The relationship between developing countries, between China and Indonesia in particular, have evolved throughout the years — and have finally taken shape when China launched its 21st century Silk Road initiative, formally known as the Belt and Road Initiative.

The Initiative seeks to connect the Afro-eurasian continent through land and sea. The former is known as the Economic Belt, while the latter is known as the Maritime Silk Road.

China’s Proposed Belt and Road Initiative.

Indonesia and China are once again crossing each other’s path. Chinese President Xi Jinping formally announced the idea of Maritime Silk Road back in 2013, when he was invited to address the Indonesian Parliament in Jakarta. Since then, Indonesia plays not only an important actor geographically, but also symbolically in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Two ways cooperation has flourished over the past five if not more years. China’s Belt and Road played a role in complementing the then-newly announced Indonesia’s Global Maritime Fulcrum strategy that sought to increase the connectivity in the archipelagic nation Indonesia. From high-speed railways to seaports to power plants, China’s investment in Indonesia has made cooperation possible and resilient, even in hard times.

Despite issues in the past, such as the persecution of Chinese ethnic and diaspora in Indonesia during Soeharto Era (1965–1998), Soeharto Era’s policy to deny Chinese ethnic in Indonesia the right to celebrate their culture and learn their mother-tongue, as well as suspicion and resentment towards Chinese ethnic and businesses owned by them, the relationship between China and Indonesia today is in the point where it has ever been.

Both Indonesia and China have both pledged to respect each other’s sovereignty and issues of domestic and internal concerns.

Bumpy ride, however, was presented by a more delicate issue — the South China Sea, where China and four of Indonesia’s closest neighbours in ASEAN have overlapping claims in the sea. Even then, progress through ASEAN-China platforms of dialogue have made possible dialogues and negotiations. A more fruitful result is coming sooner or later.

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Especially in times of crisis like this, China-Indonesia relations and friendship is more important than ever, be it through bilateral setting or multilateral setting. Indonesia offered help to China in the first days of the COVID-19 outbreak. Now, that China has seemingly been able to have the outbreak under control domestically, it is offering help to Indonesia — and it is coming, in addition to those who have arrived.

Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Coronavirus Disease, February 2020.

Through multilateral setting, ASEAN-China engagement was shown through the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Coronavirus Disease. China has also participated actively in the recent ASEAN+3 extraordinary summit on COVID-19.

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Seventy years of China-Indonesia engagement has proven that the relationship is mutual, and that it has weathered storms along the way. Cooperation has been forged, from the Asian-African Conference to the Afro-eurasian Belt and Road Initiative. Whatever comes in the way of China-Indonesia cooperation in the future, the vision of shared prosperity and solidarity lives.

International Relations enthusiast