Where Does Indonesia’s Prabowo Subianto Stand on Foreign Policy?

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Where Does Indonesia’s Prabowo Subianto Stand on Foreign Policy?

The defense minister would likely follow the broad approach of President Joko Widodo, but with a heavier emphasis on defense.

Where Does Indonesia’s Prabowo Subianto Stand on Foreign Policy?

Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, center, salutes at photographers upon arrival to attend the “Declaration of Peaceful Election Campaign” at the General Election Commission Building, in Jakarta, Indonesia, Nov. 27, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana

Continuing on from my previous analysis of the foreign policy orientation of Indonesian presidential candidate Ganjar Pranowo, this article will examine where Prabowo Subianto stands on these issues. Prabowo, Indonesia’s current minister of defense, is running for the presidency for the third time, after falling short against President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in 2014 and 2019.

Since contesting the 2014 election, Prabowo has been regarded as knowledgeable on foreign policy and well attuned to the geopolitical landscape in which Indonesia is forced to operate. Indeed, during the previous election campaigns, Prabowo was arguably better able to address foreign policy than his rival, Jokowi.

How about the upcoming 2024 election, against Ganjar Pranowo and Anies Baswedan? I argued two years ago that Prabowo had done a lot to shape the country’s foreign policy since his appointment as defense minister in 2019. Indeed, in some respects, Prabowo’s stance on certain issues has complicated the foreign policy-making process. One example is Prabowo’s view of the AUKUS security pact, which has been considerably more favorable than that of Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi.

In Prabowo’s election manifesto, titled “Together for an Advanced Indonesia,” Prabowo and his vice presidential running-mate, Jokowi’s eldest son Gibran Rakabuming Raka, lay out their vision for Indonesia, including how it should conduct its foreign affairs.

Based on a foundation of “Ekonomi Pancasila,” an alternative economic principle fusing the positive aspects of capitalism and socialism, Prabowo is gearing his policy priorities toward the Golden Year of Indonesia 2045, when the country will mark the centennial of its independence from Dutch colonial rule.

The manifesto first underlines some of the strategic challenges facing Indonesia, before listing Prabowo’s policy priorities, which include climate change, the conflicts in Ukraine and Palestine, potential armed conflicts with China in the South China Sea, the global economic slowdown, also the disruptions likely to be wrought by artificial intelligence.

Prabowo’s manifesto consists of eight grand visions, and 17 priority policy programs, only one of which specifically touches on foreign policy, making a pledge to “strengthen Indonesia’s defense and security and maintain conducive international relationships.” Further on, the manifesto elaborates in more detail on specific areas. It immediately becomes clear that Prabowo places more emphasis on war, conflicts, terrorism, and military modernization than on diplomacy.

In a more assertive foreign policy approach than that taken by Jokowi, Prabowo aims to transform Indonesia into a powerful state, which he defines as having “a well-managed defense and security system that can protect the nation and ensure peace in its own territory.” Prabowo expresses an urgency to make the country self-reliant in multiple domains, including food, energy, and water, in order to “return” Indonesia to its status as as a great country and augment its international political influence. (It is not clear to which past administration he is referring when he speaks of a “return” to greatness.)

As a military man, this security-heavy policy direction is perhaps not surprising, and we may expect that if Prabowo is elected, Indonesia will be more active in responding to geopolitical challenges.

Frankly, this does not differ much compared to what Prabowo has conveyed during past election campaigns. To achieve this goal, Prabowo also pledges to pursue a strategy of “smart” diplomacy, but the manifesto does not elaborate on what this might entail.

In the public session hosted earlier this month by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, Prabowo defined his foreign policy around the notion of a “good neighbor policy,” in which Indonesia’s defense outlook would be based on the premise of “one thousand friends too little, one enemy too many.”

Despite Prabowo’s focus on increasing the country’s military capacity and defense budget, Prabowo has also expressed optimism about global cooperation and collaboration. In responding to growing great power rivalries, he argued that there have always been great powers that have challenged incumbent powers, and that Indonesia must be ready to meet the challenges stemming from this. “There will always be one power who will feel threatened by the rise of the new great power, and this is the history of mankind,” he said.

When he was questioned on whether Indonesia would take a side in the geopolitical struggle between China and the United States, Prabowo said that he would respect all great powers. He argued that Indonesia has had ups and downs in its relationships with both of these countries, acknowledging the support of the U.S. during the country’s independence struggle, China’s importance to Indonesia’s economy, and past Russian support. Prabowo said, “the essence of Indonesia’s neutrality is we cannot and do not threaten anybody.”

Interestingly, Prabowo argued that under his leadership, Indonesia’s foreign policy will be focused on taking care of the welfare of the population over the desire for to exercise global leadership. His priority will be to eradicate poverty, which he explicitly positioned as a continuation of Jokowi’s economic management.

On more than one occasion, Prabowo has stated that he views Jokowi’s domestic economic policy, or “Jokowinomics,” as his preferred development model. Prabowo has claimed that his goal is to make Indonesia self-sufficient in energy, and will develop the country’s industrial capacity in order to make it more competitive in global trade.

Prabowo claims he does not want protectionism, but that if it is necessary to protect the welfare of Indonesian citizens and fulfill the above goals, such measures are justifiable. At the CSIS forum, he expressed a preference for fair trade over free trade, a position that seems to echo Jokowi’s own interventions in the free market.

In the discussion with the foreign policy practitioners at the CSIS, Prabowo took quite a hard line on Europe, which he said had relinquished its moral leadership by adopting double standards toward Indonesia, on trade and environmental issues. He even went so far as to state that Indonesia may no longer need European support. He said, “We love Europe, but Europeans maybe don’t love us. Now we don’t really need Europe anymore,” a statement that appears to contradict his aim of establishing a “good neighbor policy.”

In his election manifesto, Prabowo said that he would continue Indonesia’s activism in maintaining bilateral and multilateral engagement, yet offered no direction of how the country will pursue regional diplomacy, for instance in exercising its influence in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). With regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict and the ongoing war in Gaza, Prabowo joined his presidential rivals in committing to enhance Indonesia’s diplomatic efforts to help the Palestinians gain full sovereignty.

While Prabowo has remained vague on many aspects of foreign affairs, what we have seen so far suggests a degree of policy continuity with Jokowi’s administration, and the possibility that Indonesia foreign policy will continue to move in the same direction as it has for the past five or ten years, though perhaps with a greater security focus.