By Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat, Dimas Permadi, and Ramadha Valentine

After Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kala signed 23 collaborative projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) in April 2019, Indonesia is now witnessing the implementation of those projects.

Along with the projects, the number of Chinese workers has also increased in the country. According to the Ministry of Manpower, the foreign worker population in Indonesia is dominated by the Chinese. In 2018, the ministry has issued a total of over 30,000 permits to workers from China, surpassing that of other Asian countries like Japan and India.

Katadata, an Indonesia-based media focusing on economics and business, reported that the number of Chinese foreign workers in Indonesia has increased by 22.9 percent from 2017 to 2018.

With the increased number of Chinese workers in Indonesia, there is also a growing sentiment against labors from China. According to one of the Pew Research Center, fewer Indonesians hold favorable views of China since Chinese President Xi Jinping took office in 2013.

What are the factors for anti-Chinese sentiment?

In carrying out its projects, China has often brought some of its workers to Indonesia for efficiency purpose, especially to facilitate work without language and work ethic constraints. But this policy is also applicable to other countries that have Chinese investment projects.

The number of Chinese workers in Indonesia is also not as exaggerated as the media claimed. Fakes news circulating on social media has even claimed that “10 million Chinese workers had entered Indonesia and were about to ‘dominate the country,’” SCMP reported.

In 2018, President Jokowi mentioned that the number of Chinese workers in Indonesia was around 23,000, which was a far lower number than the 80,000 Indonesian workers in China.

Despite the number, the anti-Chinese sentiment is still visible among Indonesians. From a historical point of view, Indonesian people have had a poor relationship with the first arrival of the Chinese. During the Dutch colonial period, Chinese, Indians, and Arabs were given privileged trade in Indonesia, but native Indonesians were unfairly treated in comparison. And the anti-Chinese sentiments have only swelled over the years.

How can the Indonesian government address the growing discontent?

To ensure the country’s interests, Indonesia should negotiate with the Chinese government to get an agreement favorable to its local population. China greatly depends on the outcome of the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway to parade as a triumph of the BRI, which gives Indonesia more bargaining power. Indonesia's geographic position in the BRI’s planned maritime route also provides more leverage for the Southeast Asian country to negotiate with China.

It’s important for the Indonesian government to learn from other countries in negotiating with China. Some states in the Arabian Peninsula, for example, require Chinese companies to partner with their national firms in order to run their business. Foreign companies are also required to recruit local workers for managerial positions and to train local workers to be employed.

The policy can be adopted to help fix the skeptical attitude of the Indonesian people toward Chinese foreign workers.

To ease the paranoia over foreign Chinese workers, the Indonesian government needs to be transparent about the exact number of Chinese foreign workers in every BRI Indonesia project. So that the government can respond quickly if there are concerns about these sentiments.

While China needs Indonesia for the BRI implementation, Indonesia also needs to remember the BRI is mutually beneficial, especially its aim to build infrastructures that are long overdue. This, however, comes with a price: the influx of Chinese workers. If Indonesia does not welcome Chinese workers out of discrimination and animosity, it would be difficult to fully take advantage of the benefits brought by the BRI.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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