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Ride the Dragon or Fly with the Eagle? This Is the Dilemma Facing Indonesia

The US under Biden has adopted a policy of being tough on China. This has created a dilemma for countries like Indonesia that are benefiting from their economic relations with China. Indonesia is hard pressed to maintain beneficial economic relations with China while avoiding the ire of the US.

By Krisantus Tobias

“When I was growing up, my parents told me: ‘Finish your dinner. People in China and India are starving.’ I tell my daughters: ‘Finish your homework. People in India and China are starving for your job.'” Thomas Friedman, author and three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

When Donald Trump was US president, he was tough on China, as he waged a trade war against that country. Observers did hope that Biden would tend to be more lenient and thus improve relations with China instead of engaging it in a trade war.

Moreover, Biden has appointed Kurt Campbell, one of the architects of the “pivot” to Asia of the Barack Obama administration, to the position of National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific. Since the Obama administration tended to be soft on China, people hoped that Biden would rehash the policies of that era. 

As it turned out Biden assumed an attitude towards China that was no less tough than Trump’s. Speaking to US senators after a telephone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, he said that if the US did not improve itself in the economic and infrastructure fields. Slowly but surely the country would become inferior to mentioned that if the US does not improve itself in the economic and infrastructure fields, slowly but surely, the country will become inferior under China.

“If we don’t get moving, they are going to eat our lunch,” said Biden. Meaning if the US did not move forward, it would be left behind by China. 

This is similar to the statement of the New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, as quoted at the beginning of this paper, that China, which used to be a nation short of food, is now on the move and even threatens the availability of jobs for people in the US and the Western world. This means that China is already capable of taking over the position of the US as a major player in international politics and the global economy if the US does not make up for lost time during the Trump administration.

Biden’s political language clearly does not show a soft political line. In fact, if you look back, Biden has started to rally Western countries against China and Russia. 

Of course, the question is whether this is the right political stance for the US in its efforts to promote its national interests. What would be the impact on the international community and how is this problem viewed by the academic and diplomat from Singapore, Kishore Mahbubani? 

Riding the Dragon

This American political stance that tends to be tough on China has been very much in evidence in the last few weeks. In February 2021, Biden spoke at a meeting with European countries in a way that was reminiscent of Donald Trump’s attitude. 

On that occasion, Biden made an ideological differentiation that must have caused a lot of concern on the part of China and Russia. The US and the European countries were cited as the embodiment of democratic values. On the other hand, he labeled China and Russia as representatives of authoritarianism. The context of this political attitude became more apparent when high officials from the two countries met in Alaska sometime later and the meeting was marked by a tension that reflected the animosity between the two countries. 

From the US point of view, this situation is actually in accordance with the marketing strategy that is applicable to states, in the context of “creating enemies” or creating the enemy. The aim is to create a feeling of “urgency” or anxiety that can push the country to work harder to compete. 

This is probably what Biden is trying to do. By portraying China as a threat, the US will be motivated to find the right moves that will enable it to compete and to serve its national interests.

However, Biden’s political stance has drawn criticism from some observers. Kishore Mahbubani in one of his writings stated that continuing Trump’s political approach towards China would be a disaster for the US and many countries.

It is well known that Trump has destroyed the US political position at the global level. This means that continuing the same strategy will also harm the US. Biden must admit that Trump’s political ways are wrong. 

Encouraging other countries to become hostile to China will also put these countries in a dilemma, given that the cooperation between China and these countries are regarded as mutually beneficial. Indonesia, for example, tends to get financing benefits from China for various cooperation projects. 

In addition, looking for loopholes to influence China’s domestic politics is also likely to be very difficult. The reason is, according to a report by the Harvard Kennedy School, there has been an increase in the Chinese people’s support for their own government, from 86 percent in 2003 to 93 percent in 2016.

This means that it is difficult to find loopholes to try to weaken China’s position internally, as well as internationally. In the international context, China already has extensive cooperation with countries in Asia, Africa and Europe.

US efforts to bring up democracy and human rights as issues that will generate “hostility” against China are not likely to succeed. Chinese officials have strongly pushed back against this effort by arguing that human rights and democracy are not considered universal values. Thus, this will make it difficult for human rights and democracy campaigns to be used successfully against China.

The issue of the repression of the Uighur Muslim community in China, for example, has not elicited a strong reaction in many Islamic countries in Asia – including Indonesia – because China has been able to package this issue so that there is no strong reaction in these other countries. 

Thus, the US strategy of being hostile to China may be backfiring. Mahbubani and other scholars have suggested that the strategy the US should adopt is not fighting the dragon, but riding the dragon.

The US should create opportunities to create mutually advantageous relations with China, while at the same time strengthening its own internal position so that it can again take a leadership position on the global political scene.

Acknowledging Progress

The US must accept the fact that when a nation is big in everything, it automatically becomes a superpower. Stable politics, advanced technology, vast human resources, a wealth of natural resources, and an economy that has great capabilities are some of the determining factors. The US and most other countries have adhered to this concept of superpower since the end of World War II. This is alluded to by William TR Fox in several of his writings regarding the concept of superpower. 

Moreover, as shown by research conducted by the Lowy Institute, China’s power index has reached a very high level. That means maybe it’s time for the US to accept this fact. 

If so, where will Indonesia be? Riding the dragon or choosing to look to the West, also known as flying with the eagle?

Well, it must be admitted that in the current situation China has arguably overcome the pandemic. China has also been able to accelerate its economy again. This means that being close to China or riding the dragon will be profitable.

However, a bad relationship with the US can have a bad impact on Indonesia as well – something that Indonesia has experienced in the past. 

The ideal situation is of course a balanced relationship with both major powers. The goal is to maximize benefits from dealing with both in order to serve the national interest. Time will tell if Indonesia can achieve that.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of PinterPolitik.

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