Last week, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto paid a visit to South Korea, which included his attendance at the rollout ceremony for the country’s indigenous fighter jet (KF-X). Though few details were disclosed about the visit, it nonetheless put the spotlight on the growing security aspect of ties between Jakarta and Seoul.
As I have observed before, Indonesia and South Korea have been pursuing defense collaboration as part of their wider diplomatic ties, which date back to 1971. The two countries inked a defense agreement back in 2013, and cooperation on projects has continued to proceed to varying degrees, from submarines to the development of the new KF-X/IF-X fighter aircraft which has been running into some complications.
The two sides have looked to further boost security cooperation between them in recent years despite the challenges therein. In addition to steps such as ratification of their defense agreement, both sides have also discussed potential new endeavors, including additional consultation mechanisms and collaboration in areas such as cybersecurity. This has occurred as the South Korean government under President Moon Jae-in has pursued a New Southern Policy aimed at boosting ties with Southeast Asian states.
Last week, the defense relationship was in the headlines again with the visit of Prabowo’s visit to South Korea, which kicked off on April 7, following earlier speculation about the nature and agenda of the trip. The minister, who was reportedly accompanied by around 20 officials, spent three days in the country, during which he met with a number of South Korean officials. Per press releases issued by Indonesia’s defense ministry, Prabowo paid courtesy calls on President Moon Jae-in and Prime Minister Chung Sye-Kyun, where he expressed his appreciation for the special strategic partnership between Indonesia and South Korea. He also held a bilateral defense meeting Defense Minister Suh Wook, where they both discussed views on several strategic security matters, including aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and addressed opportunities for future defense collaboration, which were unspecified.
The highlight of Prabowo’s trip was his presence at a rollout ceremony for the KF-X indigenous fighter jet as a representative of the Indonesian government. The rollout was officiated by Moon, accompanied by Suh Wook as well as Kang Eun-Ho, the newly-appointed minister of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA). The rollout also saw Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo give a virtual speech congratulating South Korea on its launch of the KF-X fighter prototype, with Jokowi calling it a “landmark” moment for South Korea and noting its tie to the defense relationship between South Korea and Indonesia.
The participation of Prabowo and Jokowi in the KF-X rollout was read as a symbolic signal of Jakarta’s acknowledgement of the KF-X/IF-X role in the wider defense relationship, and Jokowi did in fact refer to the project by name and mentioned it was a work in progress designed to meet the needs of both countries decades into the future. Yet at the same time, unsurprisingly and contrary to some previous speculation, Prabowo’s visit was not accompanied by any additional publicized clarity or specificity on Indonesia’s approach to the KF-X/IF-X fighter jet program.
The lack of publicized clarity and specificity should not be understated, since the issues underlying the delays with the KF-X/IF-X fighter jet program lie more in substantive questions than symbolic commitments. More generally, defense interlocutors on both sides privately acknowledge that collaboration has been more difficult to get off the ground in practice, despite both nations’ best efforts. Nonetheless, Prabowo’s trip and his participation along with Jokowi’s virtual presence at the KF-X rollout event nonetheless reaffirmed Jakarta’s commitment to at least continuing to be invested in developing the relatively underperforming defense aspect of a key relationship for Indonesia within the Indo-Pacific region.