ASEAN After 50: Rethinking ASEAN-China Cultural Cooperation

Dr. Gabriel Lele

ASEAN-China cooperation has stepped towards a new phase in the recent decade. As ASEAN is celebrating its 50th anniversary, it is important to rethink the cooperation in the future.

The cooperation between China-Indonesia has been developing since as early as the 7th century when Indonesia was part of the Silk Route among traders.  China has its special place in Indonesian history. One of the most historical incidence from Indonesia perspective is the incidence of military aggression to conquer Kingdom of Majapahit of Java in the 13th century for economic and territorial purposes.

The most recent displeasing incident took place during Indonesian economic crisis in 1997-1999. As the crisis went up, the anti-Chinese sentiment escalated due to the accusations that Chinese-Indonesian who are mostly the wealthy businessman is partly responsible for the crisis.

Against this background, up to the very recent days, the cooperation between the two countries, China and Indonesia, has developed even more significant. In cultural sector, there are several key milestones for this instance and the following are some facts.

In the field of tourism, the inbound tourist from China to Indonesia has increased significantly during the last few years. The number of tourists from China recorded as the highest compared to any other country. In fact, the Indonesian government wishes to boost the number in the near future.

In regard to that idea, the Indonesian government has applied a visa-free policy for Chinese visiting Indonesia for cultural purposes.

The latter achievement cannot be separated from several policy initiatives coming from both governments. There have been several policy commitments to extend cultural ties in a more general or specific ways. The involvement of non-government institutions in cultural affairs has also increased by, for example, the extension of education cooperation among universities and inter-media cooperation. This has also strengthened by the cooperation between/among air carriers to support people mobility.

While acknowledging this progress, a qualitative observation reveals that some concerns sustain. Some of the cultural relation framework signed at both bilateral and regional levels require further efforts to make it actual.

Despite its huge potential and opportunity, it is time to take a brief reflection on the ASEAN-China cultural cooperation, what are the challenges and how can we deal with them? How could the cultural bond between two countries be strengthened?

As it has been recognized, strong and genuine cultural cooperation must be based on mutual understanding, mutual respect, and mutual acceptance that may lead to harmonious ties. Because of this very reason, inter-country cultural cooperation cannot be built from the top. Rather, it has to be started from the bottom, where people-to-people cooperation is the key cornerstone.

To this very condition, the current arrangement and implementation of China-Indonesia cultural cooperation have raised criticisms. The first criticism deals with the approach adopted by both governments that are too state/elite centric and close or even secret nature of (cultural) diplomacy. This is a very common way used by the ASEAN member countries or the “ASEAN way” as it commonly known.

Under this scheme, public outreach is only relevant when dealing with the implementation. The secret and elite centric approach are adopted for almost all issues, even for issues that are less/least sensitive where the public participation is important such as cultural cooperation. This is means that cultural policy making only involves limited formal actors. Combined, this has raised the question of legitimacy, acceptability and its ability to be implemented.

The second criticism centers on the issue of implementation or the way cultural cooperation is executed. Because of the nature of cultural policy making, implementation has been very weak, in which delay and deficit are common. Our research shows that even within ASEAN itself, there are many agreements which simply do not work. Opposition to the regional agreements is commonly found.

For example, China and the ASEAN member countries could exchange archives or ancient artistic heritage. But for whose benefit? Putting ancient antiques in both countries’ museums is a very good idea, but then, what is the point if there are no visitors?

Similarly, both countries could agree to exchange basic country information through schools or universities. This would result in no impact if the activity is not supported by a more consolidated curriculum. Unfortunately, this is beyond the reach of both Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Culture.

This kind of problem requires immediate assistance. The first point of departure is by thoroughly considering the nature of governance structure. Chinese governance structure is totally different from the one adopted in Indonesia, with the first being more concerned while the later being more fragmented. This different level of fragmentation affects significantly the prospect of policy success. The lesson is that governance can no longer be ignored or taken for granted; it has to be dealt with more seriously by involving all relevant stakeholders in the policy-making process.

The last criticism deals more with the paradigmatic flaw in how culture and cultural cooperation are defined and operationalized. Different documents concerning cultural cooperation use different definition or dimension.

It is noticeable within the Plan of Action to Implement the Joint Declaration on ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity (2016-2020), where culture and cultural cooperation are only partially understood as “literature, libraries, archival materials, museums, performing arts, visual arts, art education, other relevant public cultural facilities and cultural/creative industry”. The concept of “culture” is also closely related “historical relics, archaeology and cultural heritage preservation, museums, archives, libraries, and cultural institutes.

Far before this document was developed, ASEAN and China has also signed a MoU on Cultural Relations in Bangkok 2005, through which, culture is broadly defined to cover “tangible and intangible cultural heritage, archaeology, traditional and contemporary arts, cultural enterprise and creative industries, and cultural enterprise” (see Paragraph 2).

ASEAN and China have to solve this issue. We need a better framework for ASEAN-China Cultural Cooperation in the future.


*) Dr. Gabriel Lele is Senior Researcher at ASEAN Studies Center and Associate Professor at Department of Management and Public Policy, Universitas Gadjah Mada. A longer version of this article was presented at the Network of ASEAN-China Think Tank (NACT) Meeting in Guiyang, China.