By: Yeremia Lalisang
The visit of China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping, to Southeast Asia late last year was welcomed warm-heartedly, particularly in Indonesia as his first stop. Many thought it was a sign of China’s willingness to improve its ties with Southeast Asia. After his visit, would he include the region in his vision of the “China Dream”? Would the region benefit from this?
Xi Jinping and the China Dream
Each leadership era in China has always been identified by a particular slogan promoted by its paramount leader. Consequently, this distinguishes one leadership generation from another. Now, it is the fifth generation leaders’ turn. Under President Xi Jinping, the Peoples’ Republic enters the era to pursue the so-called China Dream (Zhongguo meng).
Introducing this slogan, Xi has shown his commitment to ensure that China keeps moving forward. In addition, he probably wants to say – just like the Americans, with their American Dream – that China, with all its achievements, is now more than capable of dreaming about what kind of state and society the future may bring.
This represents the Chinese people’s extraordinarily high level of confidence. Their beloved country, which was once humiliated by external powers, is now on the world stage with the capacity to be the next superpower.
While launching this policy discourse, Xi sees the China Dream as “the great revival of the Chinese nation.” Throughout China, people welcome their new leader’s vision. They are then allowed to send their own words about the future China. In this regard, the Chinese government demonstrates a commitment to make the dream more inclusive. Nevertheless, it is also vague.
Until today, scholars and experts on China, and even the Chinese people, have discussed this slogan without any agreed interpretation. It is unclear whether the great revival of the Chinese nation should be seen in terms of military, economic or even soft power.
Southeast Asia, Indonesia and the China Dream
How should the China dream be interpreted in the Southeast Asian context? Could China become the lighthouse of successful economic development in the region? Does China strengthen the economic foundations of the region, to make it even more prosperous?
In terms of politics and security, could we say that the China Dream in the Southeast Asian context sees China as militarily powerful, yet willing to settle disputes peacefully? Could we also argue that the China Dream is the increased understanding of people throughout the region about China, its great civilization and its modern society?
In the absence of clear Chinese government moves to realize the China Dream for its own people, its neighboring region and the world, why not start having our own dreams about China? Answers to the questions above will eventually be determined by the region’s own efforts in articulating the shape of Southeast Asia-China relations.
In this regard, ASEAN would absolutely play a significant role. The regional organization should be able to articulate the region’s interests in a continuously growing China. Finishing its homework related to ASEAN’s wish to become an economic community, it could gradually contribute to the region’s capacity in conducting relations with China. In short, ASEAN has to wake up soon, make the region’s dream come true and then start to think beyond the region, including dealing with China.
In the middle of this vagueness about the China Dream, Indonesia must vigorously formulate its national interests in terms of friendly and expanding relations with China.
When President Xi visited Jakarta, opinions and expectations rose. Various topics were raised during this visit such as the South China Sea dispute with several Southeast Asian states (not including Indonesia) and trade. On the South China Sea, one Indonesian lawmaker said that China should have the good will to resolve the issue. On the trade imbalance with China, there is also a desire to make the balance tilt more in favor of Indonesia.
During the State Dinner in honor of President Xi’s visit, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono addressed two of Indonesia’s prime economic interests with China. Indonesia would like to see a sharp increase in Chinese investment, especially in infrastructure and industrial development projects. In addition, Indonesia expects to see growing numbers of people-to-people exchanges through cooperation in education, tourism and creative industries.
Given these expectation, Indonesia should redouble its efforts to fulfill its own wishes. As the principle of reciprocity governs bilateral relations, efforts to make the trade balance favorable to Indonesia and see Chinese investment increase are not solely China’s duty, but also Indonesia’s.
Like ASEAN, Indonesia has to finish its homework. It is Indonesia’s obligation to create a friendly environment for foreign investment. It is Indonesia’s duty to make products that are more competitive in order to gain more benefit from China’s market. Moreover, Indonesia could also start to play a more instrumental role in settling the South China Sea dispute peacefully, by supporting and increasing ASEAN’s institutional capacity in dealing with China.
Only by finishing the homework, can Indonesia and the region benefit more from Xi Jinping’s China Dream. Most importantly, Indonesia could then make its own dreams come true.
Yeremia Lalisang is a Ph.D. Student at Xiamen University and is on the faculty of International Relations at the University of Indonesia.