Indonesia’s Evolving Perception of China

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ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Indonesia’s Evolving Perception of China

The latest survey from the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute reflected the country’s moderately positive, though still ambivalent, attitude towards China.

Indonesia’s Evolving Perception of China
Credit: © Ruletkka |

The findings from ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s State of Southeast Asia 2024 survey present a nuanced picture of Indonesian perceptions towards China. While the data indicates a notable increase in China’s influence across Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia, the underlying sentiments reflect a complex interplay of economic opportunities, geopolitical concerns, and socio-cultural affinities.

According to the survey, 54 percent of Indonesians view China as “the most influential” economic power in Southeast Asia, albeit lower than the previous year’s figure of 71.1 percent. However, a significant portion (46.2 percent) of Indonesian respondents expressed apprehension regarding China’s growing regional economic influence, with a further 57 percent voicing concerns over its political sway. These figures suggest mixed sentiments among the survey’s Indonesian respondents, who were drawn from academia, think tanks, the private sector, civil society, the media, government, and regional and international organizations, marked by a blend of acknowledgment of China’s economic prowess and caution regarding its expanding influence.

The most talked-about finding from the survey report was the increase in China’s popularity among Southeast Asian respondents. In response to the question, “If ASEAN were forced to align itself with one of the strategic rivals [i.e. the U.S. or China], which should it choose?” 50.5 percent said that they would side with China, signifying a shift in regional alignments. This trend was particularly pronounced among respondents from Indonesia, Laos, and Malaysia, which have benefited from Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and have robust trade relations with China. The tangible impacts of Chinese investments and infrastructure projects have contributed to a more favorable view of China among these nations, with a notable increase in preference compared to previous years.

Additionally, this result was also likely influenced by displeasure with the U.S.’s support for Israel, which has been a contentious issue in the region, especially in the Muslim-majority nations. This suggests that the more positive result for China may simply reflect growing frustration with the U.S., aligning with the view of the ambivalent Indonesian stance towards China.

At the same time, Southeast Asians are increasingly optimistic about their future interactions with China. When asked how their countries’ relations with China would evolve in the next three years, more than 50 percent of those surveyed said that relations would “improve,” with Indonesia, Laos, and Malaysia showing the highest levels of optimism within ASEAN nations. For Indonesia specifically, the percentage of those saying that relations with Beijing would “improve” increased from 33.9 percent last year to 58.5 percent this year. This positive outlook indicates a practical acknowledgment of the benefits offered by strengthened relations with China, especially in terms of economic collaboration and regional stability.

In terms of its influence and appeal, the survey results suggest that China’s strategic deployment of soft power initiatives seems to have yielded notable successes, particularly evident in its targeted investments across various sectors such as education, media, and diplomatic outreach to the country’s Muslim communities.

China has positioned itself as an attractive destination for Indonesian students, offering scholarships and exchange programs aimed at fostering cross-cultural understanding and cooperation. Many of these students have now returned and speak positively about China on various public platforms in the country. Simultaneously, through its media investments, China has sought to shape narratives and disseminate content that portrays the nation in a positive light, while targeting its engagement at the country’s Muslim communities. While many claim that these initiatives serve as a cover-up for its contentious treatment of minority groups, particularly Uyghur Muslims, the survey results suggest that they are having some impact in promoting positive perceptions of China.

This general sense of positivity also seems to override Indonesian apprehension about China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, the economic, environmental, and social impacts of Chinese investments, and the growing influx of Chinese workers into the country. Meanwhile, the survey suggests that Indonesian concerns about China’s human rights violations, particularly its treatment of Uyghur Muslims, are less significant than concerns about the Israel-Palestine conflict. According to the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute survey, Indonesian respondents viewed the situation in Gaza as a pressing geopolitical issue, with 74.7 percent saying that the Israel-Hamas war was among their top three geopolitical concerns, compared to just 43 percent for China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea. In addition, only 27.6 percent said that Beijing’s policy towards Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong was one of the factors that “could potentially worsen [their] positive impression of China.” As mentioned above, Indonesian anger at the U.S. policy toward Gaza may explain why more respondents expressed a preference for aligning with China.

In sum, the survey results reveal a complex mix of Indonesian perspectives on China. While there’s recognition of China’s economic prowess and its growing influence in the region, there are also significant concerns regarding its political sway and regional assertiveness. At the same time, it reflects a growing optimism about future interactions with China, especially in terms of economic collaboration.

For Indonesian policymakers, the country’s policy toward China necessitates a delicate balance between pragmatism and principle. This means acknowledging both the opportunities and challenges that come with deepening ties with China. Addressing concerns related to sovereignty, good governance, and human rights is crucial while also leveraging economic cooperation to promote mutual benefit and regional stability. By adopting such an approach, policymakers can navigate the complexities of Indonesia’s evolving relationship with China effectively.