Sino-Indonesian relations: Lessons from the past

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In terms of both population and territory, Indonesia and China are the largest nations in their respective regions of Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia. They share a long history of relations, with a 'golden age' of understanding dating back to the 7th century. This was when learned Buddhists from China would travel via Borobodur in Java in their pilgrimages to India. Later, from the 14th century, diplomatic and trade interactions were fostered by 'cultural brokers' on both sides. Chronicles show Javanese envoys of Chinese origin, such as Chen Yen-xiang, conducting diplomacy with China. Muslim Chinese, such as the celebrated Ming Admiral Zheng He, enhanced China's diplomatic presence in the Archipelago in the 15th century. On occasion, relations became conflictual. China under the Mongols attacked Java in 1293, but ultimately lost to an ambitious and manipulative Javanese, Raden Vijaya. More recently, Marxist-inspired China found common anti-imperialist cause with independent Indonesia. Yet this axis of understanding also served the machinations of Javanese politics and the rise to power of a Javanese general, Suharto. Ironically, China - not Indonesia - is celebrated as a strategic culture of deception, a view popularised by the writings attributed to the classical military strategist, Sun Tzu or Master Sun. Yet in early Sino-Javanese relations China's Mongol phase of military aggression was countered by a Javanese master of deception. As to General Suharto eight centuries later, his anti-Communist (and hence anti-China) cause lent legitimacy to a regime of reward and punishment. It was one which mirrored both its authoritarian opponent in Peking, as well as China's legalists and militarists of an earlier age. While culturally different, Indonesia and China appear to have more in common than meets popular perception. They are large multi-ethnic nations attempting to maintain their unity in the face of centrifugal forces. Globalisation in the present era has also made regional relations even more imperative for maintaining national strength. Internal stability appears to be best served by regional integration on the basis of common cultural, commercial and national interests. It is also more ably expressed in an ethic of respect that prevailed in past periods, not only between nations but also between peoples. Thus the dharma of the present diplomatic age would require an internal respect for difference within the national entity. Sino-Indonesians are a case in point. Unless internal divisions are healed, or at least better managed, external relations are unlikely to escape the manipulative forces of domestic politics. In an age which has seen the rise of militant Islam, and along with it, an increasingly imperialistic USA, the two largest polities in eastern Asia would do well to heed their history.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationReadings in world development: Growth, development and poverty alleviation in the Asia-Pacific
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherNova Science Publishers
Number of pages10
ISBN (Print)9781594549311
Publication statusPublished - 2007


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