Indonesia’s elections are over and incumbent President Joko Widodo has declared victory over opponent Prabowo Subianto. Throughout the election period, Subianto issued statements critical of Chinese investments in the country. Far from offering a realistic economic alternative, Subianto simply rallied his supporters towards an ultra-nationalist agenda that included elements of not so subtle Sinophobia. This tactic was especially worrisome due to the historic treatment of Indonesia’s ethnic Han Chinese minority. Ultimately though, the more moderate incumbent proved that a majority of Indonesians were ultimately unmoved by Subianto’s attempts to make the election into a bizarre referendum on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
One of the insufficiencies of a hostile rather than consensus based democratic process is that in order to win votes, candidates often say what they know to be untrue. No serious politician or aspiring politician actually believes that there is a political dynamic to BRI. The very fact that multiple countries with varied cultures, political systems, histories and ethnic dynamics are part of BRI automatically dispels the notion that there are political strings attached to the economically aimed project which seeks to help partners attain peace through prosperity. For Indonesia, the Chinese built high speed railway connecting Jakarta to Bandung is illustrative of how BRI connectivity can help to rapidly modernise domestic infrastructure, something that intrinsically helps to create more growth in developing countries.
Another reason why BRI is able to transcend political situations in partner nations is due to the fact that China remains highly flexible when it comes to creating bespoke solutions to serve the unique needs of BRI partners. China and Malaysia have just revised plays to build a high-speed railway on peninsular Malaysia’s east coast after veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad stated that his predecessor had inked a rail agreement that he considered problematic. In spite of what various media outlets said over the last year, China always understood that Mahathir’s political opposition to his predecessor was his major concern. As such, Mahathir and his Chinese partners worked to negotiate a new agreement that has just been finalised in respect of building the new railway that will create greater internal connectivity in Malaysia. This proves that China is happy, willing and able to work around the internal developments in partner nations in order to reach win-win agreements aimed at the future rather than those which are bogged down in the past.
In Sri Lanka, China continues to restructure the managerial arrangements at the substantial Hambantota Port. As BRI is best thought of as a multilateral initiative, China has worked with its Sri Lankan partners to attract additional foreign direct investment from countries as diverse as Oman and India.
Turning back to Indonesia, it is particularly instructive for international observers to note that in nations with an historic Chinese minority, politicians often conflate and confuse issues of domestic internal relations with bilateral relations between such a country and the People’s Republic of China. And yet, these political methods are becoming increasingly exposed as hyperbolic fear mongering that serve only to distract from objective and logical economic discussions.
More and more people across Asia, Africa and Europe are coming to the realisation that those who seek to falsely politicise BRI are only delaying otherwise fruitful projects from taking place in an atmosphere where a win-win mentality replaces unhealthy paranoia. But just as most of the politicians who seek to lambaste BRI for short term gain are aware that they are not being honest in their remarks, so too are ordinary people becoming ever more aware that BRI transcends politics and that instead, political debates should be about how to maximise all varieties of global connectivity rather than turn it into an issue of “us versus them”.