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Some Indonesian Islamic Groups Prefer China Over America

Some Indonesian Islamic groups advocate closer ties with China to offset the United States' influence in Asia. Indonesian political analysts and religious leaders say these groups reflect opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and recognition of China growing power in Asia.

The Islamic group Hizbut-Tahrir features a video on its Indonesian Web site that begins with dramatic music mixed with the sounds of bombs and gunfire, and graphic images of the United States at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It then cuts to a clip from a speech President Barack Obama made during his campaign. "Those who threaten Israel threaten us. Israel has always faced these threats on the frontlines. And I will bring to the White House an unshakable commitment to Israel's security," Obama said.

It is not surprising then that Hizbut-Tahrir's spokesman in Indonesia, Ismail Yusanto, says his organization thinks the United States is not a friend to the Muslim world. "Because according to us, Obama is a president of the United States of America, who until now still oppress and colonize Muslim countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan," he explained.

What might be surprising is that his organization advocates closer political ties with China, a country ruled by an officially atheist Communist Party. Yusanto even says that China represses its own Muslim minority. But he says a strategic alliance with China would offset U.S. influence in Asia. "We regard China as the other, central power," he said. "You know that China now continues improving their economic power as well as military power, that could make what we call [a] balance of power in the world."

Juwono Sudarsono, a former defense minister and professor of international relations at the University of Indonesia, says, while Hizbut-Tahrir is a small organization with little political power, its message resonates with a growing number Indonesian groups. "It is more of what I would call a pan-Asian (movement) against Western domination, so to speak," Sudarsono stated. "It is not only popular among Islamist groups here but also among some secular nationalists."

Din Syamsuddin, the head of Mohamadiyah, the second largest Islamic organization in Indonesia, says many Muslims were encouraged by President Obama's speech last year in Cairo in which he asked for a new relationship with the Muslim world based on mutual interest and respect.

While Mr. Obama may be negotiating for peace in the Middle East, and has announced plans to withdraw from Iraq, Syamsuddin says it seems to many that his actions do not support up his promises. "Though some of us quite understand the situation and schedule for the withdrawal but still there has been no significant change under foreign policy of the United States during President Bush and President Obama's administration," he said.

China on the other hand is seen as playing a constructive role in the Indonesian economy. The Indonesian Center for Strategic and International Studies says China is investing heavily in the country and that so far this year there has been a 90 percent increase in exports from Indonesia to China.

The increasingly positive attitude toward China is a change from the past. In the 1960s China was viewed by many as a threat for arming Indonesian communist insurgents.

The economically powerful Chinese ethnic minority in Indonesia was also looked on with some resentment from the general population. During the rule of Indonesian strongman Suharto, it was illegal to publicly display Chinese writing or culture.

Today the anti-Chinese bias has largely dissipated and Sudarsono says there is a perception that China's power is growing. "There is, I would say, a reluctant admission that the rise of Chinese economic power may transform into something very political in the years ahead, but at the moment it is not too much of a worry," he said.

He says, however, that China's economic size is not strength. While China has been increasing its military capabilities, Sudarsono says the U.S. Pacific fleet has historically protected the seas lanes for commerce and has prevented China or any other major power from exerting its political will through military force.

And on the political front, Syamsuddin with the Islamic organization Mohamadiyah says Indonesia has developed beyond the Chinese authoritarian government model. He would like to see his country promote but not impose democracy abroad along with the United States.

"We do hope our country to be a role model for democracy in the Muslim world. But moreover than the recognition to Indonesia, I think what can be done together, the United States and Indonesia to strengthen democracy including in the Muslim world but not by imposing that democracy regardless of the cultural and social political setting of a particular country," Syamsuddin said.

While economic ties are growing with China, he says Indonesia should continue to engage the U.S. on policy differences and work with it on issues they have in common.