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China ranks lowly in the eyes of most Indonesians, poll finds

SINGAPORE — A majority of Indonesians are sceptical of their country being able to profit from closer economic ties with China, according to a nationwide survey covering various issues including political attitudes and perceptions of other nations.

China ranks lowly in the eyes of most Indonesians, poll finds

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (left) with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China in May 2017. According to a survey, China ranked lowest, among several countries in the region, in terms of those admired by Indonesians as well as those deemed important to Indonesia. Photo: Reuters

SINGAPORE — A majority of Indonesians are sceptical of their country being able to profit from closer economic ties with China, according to a nationwide survey covering various issues including political attitudes and perceptions of other nations.

Commissioned by the Iseas–Yusof Ishak Institute, the survey also found that among several countries in the region, China ranked lowest in terms of those admired by Indonesians as well as those deemed important 
to Indonesia.

Almost 77 per cent of the 1,620 respondents admired China while 77.3 believe it is important for Indonesia. In contrast, Indonesians ranked Malaysia and Singapore highest on these two counts, followed by Japan, Thailand, the United States and Australia.

More than 85 per cent of those surveyed said that they admired Singapore and Malaysia, while 83 per cent said that they admired Thailand. 

In a separate survey question about how important certain countries are to Indonesia, 84 per cent of the respondents said that Malaysia was important to Indonesia while more than 82 per cent said that Japan and Singapore were important.

On economic cooperation with China, some 62 per cent of Indonesians think it will bring only a little benefit to Indonesia. 

Only 28 per cent of the respondents believed that deeper economic engagement with China will benefit Indonesia greatly.

“It is important to note that respondents who are from urban locations and who have higher income are more likely to think that closer economic ties with China will bring a lot of benefits,” noted the authors of the survey.

The survey, whose respondents hail from 34 Indonesian provinces, was conducted between May 20 and 30 this year. The findings were released on Thursday (Sept 7).

The study also revealed that Chinese Indonesians are more likely to see the benefits of doing business with China, compared with Indonesians of other ethnicities. 

A majority of Chinese Indonesians in the sample — 67 per cent — said that they see a lot of benefit arising from closer economic ties with Beijing.

Only between five and 50 per cent of Indonesians of other ethnicities believe likewise.

On Chinese migrant workers, who often participate in Chinese investment projects in Indonesia, over half of the respondents think that they should be allowed to work but the government should limit their numbers.

China is Indonesia’s top import source and second-biggest export destination for items such as minerals and palm oil. 

In 2015, the Indonesian government awarded a multibillion-dollar high-speed railway project traversing Jakarta and Bandung to China.

But bilateral ties have also come under the spotlight over a maritime dispute.

China claims the majority of the South China Sea, including areas contested by the likes of Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Indonesia has never made any claim to parts of the South China Sea but the waters it used to call Natuna Sea overlaps with China’s claims.

Incursions and illegal fishing by Chinese vessels within the Natuna Sea were common until recently, when the Indonesian Ministry of Fisheries actively pursued, impounded and set fire to foreign vessels caught fishing in Indonesian waters.

In March last year, a Chinese coast guard vessel collided with a Chinese fishing boat suspected of illegal fishing as it was being towed by the Indonesian authorities, setting off terse public exchanges between the countries. Three months later, Indonesia’s navy detained a Chinese vessel off the Natunas and arrested seven fishermen.

In July this year, Indonesia renamed the northern reaches of its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea as an assertion of its sovereignty. China has since demanded that Indonesia 
rescind its decision.

Only 41 per cent of respondents answered the survey question on how Indonesia should approach the Natuna Sea dispute.

This suggested a lack of awareness on the issue, noted the survey report by Iseas–Yusof Ishak Institute researchers Diego Fossati, Hui Yew-Foong and Siwage Dharma Negara. 

Among those who answered, 51 per cent saw the issue as alarming, as China is encroaching on Indonesia’s territory, while 42 per cent saw the incidents as being serious but caused by illegal fishing.

“This indicates that respondents are slightly more likely to consider the Natuna Sea issue a national security issue rather than a dispute based on economic interests,” the survey report said.

The survey also found that a majority of the respondents — 64.4 per cent — are uncomfortable with the notion of a Chinese Indonesian in a position of political leadership.

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