Sunday, January 29, 2023

Can China’s Soft Power Approach to Indonesia Shape People’s Perceptions about the Country?

The ties between Beijing and Jakarta have increased and expanded in a few couples of decades in economic, defence, political, and cultural fields. Most notably, under Jokowi’s administration, the relations between the two countries have reached their highest point. However, China-Indonesia relations were not always going smoothly. Instead, China-Indonesia bilateral ties have experienced turbulences at certain points. For example, the lowest point between the two countries was reached during Indonesia’s second president -Suharto (Fitriani, 2018, p. 3)., when the Indonesian government cut off ties with China based on the allegations of China being involved in the 1965 coup.

Nevertheless, after 23 years of so-called ‘frozen relations’, in 1990, the relationship between China and Indonesia was eventually restored. The significant progress in bilateral ties happened after Suharto’s fall in 1998. Under SBY’s administration, one of the benchmarks of the China-Indonesia relations was reached by signing the Strategic Partnership Agreement on April l5th, 2005, and on October 2, 2013, the partnership was unleveled to the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (Fitriani, 2018, p. 5).  

This paper argues that even though China is actively using public diplomacy to improve its image in Indonesia, it seems like China’s public diplomacy is not effective enough to change people’s perceptions about the country. China’s soft power is held back by intruding in Indonesia’s sovereignty and aggressive economic approach. Giving scholarships or establishing Confucian institutions will not produce attraction when Chinese fleets intrude into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.  In order to prove the stated above argument, first,  this paper will look at China’s soft power projection in Indonesia. Second,  this paper examines why despite China’s soft power, Indonesian perceptions toward the county remain unchangeable and only worsens year by year.


In recent times, particularly under Jokowi’s leadership, soft power is one of the elements of China’s approach to Indonesia. Before we discuss the sources of China’s soft power, it is necessary to define it. According to Joseph Nye, soft power is “getting others to want the outcomes that you want-co-opts people rather than coerces them” (Nye, 2004, p. 5). It relies on the ability of persuasion and attraction. The ability to attract tends to lead to compliance. Nye states that there are three sources of soft power: “its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority)” (Nye, 2004, p. 11).  

In addition, it is worth mentioning that economic and even military capabilities contribute to the projection of soft power. The military can be seen as a source of soft power because it can be used as a source of attraction when military cooperation and training programs are conducted (Nye, 2004, p.18-21). It is important to note that the relations between hard power and soft power are often intertwined.


In recent years, China has embarked on a massive project of promoting its soft power to Indonesia. China has recognized the Indonesian needs and obstacles with which it might face, and therefore it uses soft power to win the hearts and minds of the people and the government. According to the media reports, China spends around US$9 billion per year on public diplomacy and other activities related to soft power (Hall & Smith, 2013, p.3). China is using public diplomacy and trade, and investment to gain more recognition from the Indonesian side. China implements soft power diplomacy in Indonesia at least in three sectors: education, infrastructure, and vaccine. As a result, Beijing and Jakarta have strengthened their educational partnership relations. University to university cooperation between Beijing and Jakarta is increasingly growing. According to the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta, as of 2017, there were 14,000 Indonesian students who pursued their education in China (Rakhmat, 2019).  In addition, in 2017, China granted 215 scholarships to Indonesians, which was 11 times higher than in 2015 (Rakhmat, 2019).

In addition, China has established Confucius Institutes throughout the country. Since 2004 China is promoting the teachings of the Mandarin language and other parts of its culture. For instance, in 2011, Hasanuddin University, located in South Sulawesi, collaborated with Nanchang University from China, and it was reported that from 2011 to 2015, there were 2000 students from Indonesia sent to China. It is worth mentioning that Confucius Institutes are also founded in Jakarta, Bandung, West Kalimantan, and other parts of Indonesia. Furthermore, in 2016 the Chinese ambassador to Indonesia, Xie Feng, visited an Islamic boarding school- Al-Tsaqafah, where he distributed books and donated to Indonesian orphans.

Insufficient infrastructure has always been a problem for Indonesia. Thus, under Jokowi’s administration, the key priorities are made in the sphere of infrastructure development. Since Indonesia’s funds are not sufficient to fund Jokowi’s infrastructure projects, China has become a favorite source of funding Jokowi’s ambitious projects (Anwar, 2019, p. 156). Indonesia takes a very important position in the Belt and Road Initiative. As the country lacks adequate infrastructure development, the Indonesian government sees the BRI as a good opportunity to develop infrastructure and strengthen connectivity. Nevertheless, in 2021, ISEAS asked 1032 people from 10 Southeast Asian States about their perceptions of China’s economic influence on their respective countries. Overall, 65.9% of the people from Indonesia were concerned with China’s growing economic influence in Indonesia. It is worth mentioning that perceptions about China’s growing economic influence were better in 2020, where only 61.4% viewed China as a threat to the country.

It seems like Sri Lanka’s experience, when due to the inability to repay the debt to China, the Chinese government took control over Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, teaches Indonesia a lesson (Damuri at al., 2019). The result of this can be seen as predatory and calculative as they forced Sri Lanka into a ‘debt-trap’ where the project ended up with little economic benefit for the country.

Needless to say, as, at the beginning of November 2020, the Indonesian government passed Indonesia’s Omnibus Law on job creation, many Indonesians felt like the current administration was favoring the foreign investors, particularly Chinese ones, leaving behind the domestic workers. Therefore, the Omnibus Bill received a bunch of negativity and dissatisfaction from the Indonesian working class. They fear that foreign workers will take away much-needed jobs and that local labor is left with minimum protection from its own government (Mulyanto, 2020). In other words, there has always been a negative perception of Chinese workers. Therefore, the passed Omnibus Law has only added fuel and sparked anger from the working class.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Indonesia has become the primary importer of the Chinese vaccine (Hung, 2021). As of April 2021, the Chinese firm, Sinovac, has supplied about 56 million doses, and more are waiting to come (Strangio, 2021). It seems like Indonesia’s vaccine crisis turned into favor for China to even warmer relations with Jakarta. Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy tries to boost perceptions about China as a generous and responsible power. In addition, despite skepticism from the Indonesian people, Jakarta and Beijing eventually signed an agreement that gives a right to the Indonesian state-owned enterprise to produce 50 million doses of Sinovac (Hung, 2021). In addition, the Chinese government has supplied much-needed medical equipment to Indonesia such as test kits, N95 masks, protective gear and portable ventilators, and so on (Sutrisno, 2020).

Nevertheless, despite China’s efforts to project itself as a generous and responsible power, the anti-Chinese sentiment persists in Indonesia. On social media, many Indonesians address the COVID-19 as a “Chinese virus” (Rakhmat & Pashya, 2020). Most notably, some Indonesians have even been calling for a religious degree to prohibit Chinese nationals along with Chinese-Indonesians from entering Indonesia (Rakhmat & Pashya, 2020). Having this in mind, China’s hopes to improve its image within the Indonesian society remains weak.


Regardless of China’s effort to conduct public diplomacy in Indonesia, China’s influence is not significant in terms of people-to-people contact. Even though China-Indonesia relations on the level of government to the government are going smoothly (Basuki, 2021), at the grassroots level, there are tensions. There is an anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia that has not been removed yet, despite China’s efforts. As China is becoming more aggressive on the international stage in recent years, the negative perceptions about the country have only revived. China’s attitude toward the Natuna Sea has only added fuel. Since 2013 there are constant reports of Chinese fishing fleets violating Indonesia’s sovereignty and intruding into Indonesian waters (“Indonesia reinforces its command over Natuna waters through military bases,” 2016). The incident in 2016 was critical in Indonesia’s attitude to China’s behavior in the Natuna waters. After Chinese fleets violated Indonesia’s sovereignty again, the government had to build military bases in Natuna as China’s actions provoked a series of anger within the Indonesian society (“Indonesia reinforces its command over Natuna waters through military bases,” 2016). As a result of Chinese aggressive and unlawful actions within Indonesian waters, in 2021, the survey conducted by ISEAS shows 63.6% of the Indonesians believe that China is not a trustworthy partner as China’s economic and military power could jeopardize Indonesia’s sovereignty and interests.

In addition, despite China’s efforts to help Indonesia handle the COVID-19 situation by supplying the country with medical equipment and vaccines, the anti-Chinese sentiment remains alive, causing widespread discrimination toward the Chinese diaspora and Chinese workers in Indonesia. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many religious gatherings are canceled, and as a result, it triggers dissatisfaction from the Muslim clerics’ community. According to the Muslim Ulema Council, it is mandatory to held prayers in local mosques, despite government prohibition to attend churches and mosques (Llewellyn, 2020). As a result of people’s dissatisfaction, the Indonesians call upon excluding the Chinese workers in Indonesia. Furthermore, on the internet, there is anti-vaccine propaganda. Muslim clerics believe that buying Chinese vaccines is shameful because they believe it is all a conspiracy theory to eradicate Muslims (Rakhmat & Aryansyah, 2020). Also, they doubt the efficacy of the Sinovac vaccine.

Needless to say, as China’s economic influence is on the rise in Indonesia, the citizens are concerned with China’s assertive and even aggressive behavior. China is perceived as a threat to both economy and security of Indonesia (Fitriani, 2018, p. 9). It is believed that China’s economic development in Indonesia simply exploits Indonesian energy and natural resources, which threatens Indonesian society. As a result, these negative perceptions trigger even a bigger flashback from the past. In spite of the improvements in the relations, the anti-Chinese sentiment still remains alive. The revival of communism has been a dark history in Indonesian society as China was accused of being behind the killings of 6 Indonesian military generals (Amalia, 2018, p.22). In addition, identity politics is evident in Indonesia. In 2014 during the presidential election, one of Jokowi’s opponents accused the current president of looking like a Chinese and having Chinese descents (Setijadi, 2019, p. 199). In other words, there are negative political connotations that are still attached to Chinese-ness. Besides, due to Jokowi’s close relations with China, the anti-communist paranoia has resurged in the country. Thus, in 2019, Joko Widodo was a target of massive black campaign attacks accusing him of being a hand-maiden of China’s interests (Anwar, 2019, p. 158). The perception was that the president was declining from his leadership role, taking care of a narrow domestic development agenda, and willingly sacrificing ASEAN to improve ties with China. (The Jakarta Post, 2016).


In recent years, China has become Indonesia’s largest trading partner, and the country has adopted a soft power approach to recover its image in Indonesia. Yet, despite China’s significant economic influence and the COVID-19 diplomacy, the perceptions about the country remain highly unpopular. When it comes to Indonesia, China channels its soft power through public diplomacy, financial aid, trade, and investment. However, despite the fact, it seems like it takes more than just public diplomacy to alter perceptions about China among Indonesians. China’s assertive and aggressive behavior is perceived as a threat in the country, despite its efforts to restore its image. Public diplomacy, as a rule, shapes public opinion; however, it seems like China’s public diplomacy is not effective enough in the Indonesian society as according to the survey conducted by ISEAS 2021, it is evident that China’s ratings have dropped in recent years. Instead, public diplomacy conducted by China raises suspiciousness and provokes hostile reactions from the Indonesian society, especially Muslim hardliners. (Kseniia Egorova)


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