The Maritime Implications of Indonesia’s Presidential Election

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The Maritime Implications of Indonesia’s Presidential Election

Maritime affairs have not been a major campaign issue, but the three candidates’ policies could have far-reaching implications on Indonesian security.

The Maritime Implications of Indonesia’s Presidential Election

Presidential candidates, from left, Prabowo Subianto, Ganjar Pranowo and Anies Baswedan, stand on the stage as their running mates, seated rear from left, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, Mahfud MD, and Muhaimin Iskandar look on during a televised presidential candidates’ debate in Jakarta, Indonesia, Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana

On February 14, nearly 200 million people are expected to vote in Indonesia’s presidential election. Considering that Indonesia is the world’s third-largest democracy, fourth-largest nation by population, and largest Muslim-majority nation, this is a significant affair. While Indonesia has arguably punched below its weight in terms of shaping the region’s maritime interactions in recent years, its role as a global maritime player cannot be understated. Because of Indonesia’s gargantuan status in the maritime domain, small political ripples can produce big waves. Maritime affairs are not a major campaign issue, but a look at the three leading candidates’ official platform documents and key foreign policy presentations suggests what might be expected from their respective presidencies.

Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelagic state and the third-largest source of international seafarers. Comprised of over 18,000 islands stretching about 5,150 kilometers from east to west, its span is similar to the distance from Tampa to Juneau or from London to Kabul. The nation anchors the southern end of both the first and second island chains, the strategic lines of control that would govern a naval war in the Western Pacific. Indonesia is also a frontline state resisting China’s effort to gain unilateral control of the South China Sea, as Beijing’s “nine-dash line” cuts across Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone north of the Natuna Islands. Here, the China Coast Guard has skirmished with Indonesian fishermen on several occasions in recent years.

Indonesia also controls the critical chokepoints between the Pacific and Indian oceans. While there is no reason to believe Indonesia plans to restrict access to these straits, the government’s role in keeping them open, safe, and secure is of global importance. Disruptions are not unprecedented and current events in the Middle East demonstrate how commercial access to maritime chokepoints has economic impacts of such magnitude as to necessitate political and military responses. In 1964, Indonesia’s decision to deny the Royal Navy the right to transit from Australia to Singapore via the passage between Java and Sumatra instigated the Sunda Strait Crisis. In 1988, it closed both the Sunda and Lombok Straits to commercial traffic during a period of economic tensions with Japan and the OPEC nations. In 2005, Lloyd’s classified the Strait of Malacca as a “war risk” zone because of the threat posed by bandits operating from Indonesia. The criminal situation in that passage has improved greatly in the last two decades, but in recent years there has been a resurgence in armed robbery against shipping.

Indonesia’s current president, Joko Widodo (popularly known as “Jokowi”), centered his 2014 campaign on the concept of Indonesia as the Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF). He pledged to rebuild Indonesia’s maritime culture, husband its marine resources, develop its maritime infrastructure, strengthen maritime diplomacy, and expand Indonesia’s maritime defense capabilities. The GMF concept was absent from his 2019 reelection campaign with many having bemoaned its death or expressing disappointment in its lack of accomplishment. Yet, Jokowi has advanced Indonesia in all five areas. Ports have been expanded, a new nationally subsidized ferry service began operations, the Fisheries Ministry cracked down on illicit activities, the Foreign Ministry pushed through ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, the military hosted the first ASEAN joint military exercise, and the Indonesian Coast Guard expanded its mission and organized a meeting of the ASEAN Coast Guard Forum.

The leading candidate to replace Jokowi is Prabowo Subianto, the current defense minister. According to recent research by Indonesia’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), he is likely just short of winning the majority of votes in next month’s election, the threshold that would allow him to avoid the need for a runoff. His campaign platform centers on promises of stability, economic development, and the continuation of Jokowi’s legacy. Across Indonesia, Prabowo’s campaign posters have featured his picture along with that of Jokowi, who retains widely high approval ratings. Jokowi’s face has now been replaced by that of Jokowi’s 36-year-old son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, who was named Prabowo’s vice presidential running mate in October.

Considering Prabowo’s campaign rhetoric focuses on continuity with Jokowi’s projects, international and maritime affairs have not been front and center of his campaign. His official vision statement has quite specific planks related to maritime affairs, but these are mostly inward-looking. The section on national defense pledges to modernize the military and strengthen its presence in border areas and outer islands in order to reinforce Indonesian sovereignty as a unitary state. The sections on food self-sufficiency and blue economy call for improving aquaculture and deep-sea fishing, the sustainable industrialization of coastal seafood harvesting, empowering fisheries fleet with more capital and larger vessels through a public-private-people partnership, simplifying fishing licenses, expanding the domestic sea transportation fleet, improving port infrastructure, and investing in maritime human resources. The standout element of maritime foreign policy is to accelerate maritime boundary agreements with Indonesia’s 10 neighbors, a tally that does not include China since Indonesia does not officially recognize the existence of that dispute.

Yet, Prabowo’s background suggests he might behave quite differently from Jokowi in terms of attention to maritime diplomacy and naval affairs. Jokowi rose from humble origins and ran a successful furniture-making company before turning to politics. First, as the mayor of a provincial city and then governor of Jakarta, he developed a reputation for advancing smart policy to improve economic prosperity and general livability. Therefore, it was no surprise that as president he has had a mostly domestic focus.

Prabowo is cut from very different cloth. He spent much of his youth in Europe, as his father had strong political differences with Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president. That father, an economist, later served in the cabinet of Sukarno’s successor, President Suharto. Graduating from Indonesia’s military academy in 1970, Prabowo served mostly in the Special Forces and rose to prominence in terms of both rank and public visibility. While in uniform, he married Suharto’s second daughter, attended training courses in the United States, and was groomed for national leadership. He also gained infamy for being associated with human rights abuses in East Timor and during the protests that brought down Suharto in 1998. After a period of self-exile in Jordan, he returned to Indonesia and formed the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) in 2008. He has lost three elections on the national stage, once as the vice presidential candidate and twice to Jokowi in a presidential contest, but his support is now stronger than ever.

In contrast to his campaign theme, Prabowo’s background and demeanor suggest he will be more active than Jokowi in outward-looking affairs. As defense minister, he has presided over meaningful accomplishments in terms of defense modernization, much of it in the maritime domain. He cut big deals that should equip the Indonesian military with aircraft from the U.S. and France and new frigates with British technology. He also advanced projects to acquire new drones, missiles, and submarines. Under his leadership, the Defense Ministry hosted the aforementioned ASEAN Solidarity Exercise and the U.S.-Indonesia army exercise Garuda Shield became Super Garuda Shield, an event that now includes navies and more international partners. Prabowo has also demonstrated himself willing to play the role of statesman, for example proposing a peace plan for the Ukraine-Russia conflict in his 2023 Shangri-la Dialogue intervention.

Whereas many in the West hope Prabowo could emerge as an outward-looking regional leader who rallies the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to stand up for itself in the South China Sea, he seems equally likely to be what The Economist calls a “drawbridge-up” nationalist. His 2022 Shangri-la Dialogue intervention used anti-imperialism as its framing theme and many heard it as a pushback against Chinese encroachment. Indeed, he referenced territorial disputes with China, asked China to act with the benevolence urged by Confucius, and pledged to counter any power that disrespects Indonesia. Yet, when delivering his signature foreign policy campaign speech at CSIS in November, he expressed confidence that the great powers would work among themselves to prevent catastrophe. His references to anti-colonialism related not to China, but to the arrogance and hypocrisy Europeans showed him as a schoolboy and, in his view, are now demonstrating in their restrictive policy toward imports of Indonesian palm oil. He used a similar tone to defend protectionist trade policies in response to a question from the Japanese ambassador.

When giving a June 2023 presentation about Indonesian defense modernization he featured slides about the new frigates and maritime domain awareness capabilities, followed by an illustration of how future Indonesian ballistic missiles could strike targets in the South China Sea, or neighbors such as the Philippines, Singapore, or Australia. Surely, he envisions an Indonesia that takes care of itself, but he also seems ready to guard against rivals and potential imperialists on all sides.

Most media analysis suggests that Prabowo will face former Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo in a runoff, with both competing against the other on who is best to carry on the torch from Jokowi’s development agenda and ride the wave of the incumbent’s high approval rate. Ganjar has also focused his campaign on improving infrastructure, relieving congestion, and creating jobs. Similar to Jokowi, he came from outside of the elite political circles and made his way up the political ladder via the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). He has limited foreign policy experience with perhaps his most substantive interaction with the global stage being when he refused to allow the Israel soccer team to enter his province for the Under-20 FIFA World Cup, a decision which led to Indonesia being dropped as the host.

In terms of maritime affairs, Ganjar is the candidate who has expressed the most ambition in the maritime domain as a part of his campaign’s messaging strategy. In fact, his campaign vision is subtitled “Act Fast to Create a Just and Sustainable Maritime Nation.” The maritime nation he envisions is one where the seas function as the center of Indonesia’s economic power, connectivity, and diplomacy, as well as defense and security. Ganjar pledges to improve infrastructure; support the shipbuilding, fishing, and marine products industries; improve fisheries management through the use of satellite technology; and safeguard the environment.

Perhaps of all the candidates, Ganjar’s vision statement refers the most explicitly to Indonesia’s geographical reality and more clearly states how its geographic features affect policy considerations. One key idea would be his plan to modernize the national defense system to meet future challenges, including building Indonesia’s capacity for anti-access/area denial operations and creating a fourth armed service dedicated to cyber security. Yet overall, despite Ganjar’s maritime messaging, the proposals in his vision statement are fewer and less specific than those advanced by Prabowo and Anies. Specific international maritime issues do not come up at all.

During his foreign policy presentation at CSIS, Ganjar stated that Indonesia’s longstanding “free and active” foreign policy should be more strategic and take more initiative, arguing that the country should be more than an international event organizer. He also mentioned the South China Sea as a regional hotspot and offered continued diplomacy as his policy prescription and explained how improving mutual understanding reduces the chance of war. So far, he is the only candidate who has spoken of ongoing international tensions and hotspots, suggesting that the world “is not doing well” and thereby signaling a willingness to perceive consequential dynamics from outside the country.

In the section of the speech focused on maritime sovereignty, he explained that the contribution of Indonesia’s seas to national prosperity is currently suboptimal. He called for larger investment in Indonesia’s outermost islands and the optimization of international cooperation and agreements. He also noted the inadequacy of Indonesian maritime law enforcement force due to shortfalls of manpower and equipment, overlapping responsibilities between agencies, and other restrictions. When asked about budget priorities for defense, his answer included a reference to drones and satellite surveillance as cost-effective technologies.

The third candidate, Anies Baswedan, is neck-in-neck with Ganjar and, according to CSIS’s recent study, has likely pulled into the second place position, a shift that has also been reflected in recent public opinion polls. Anies is a U.S.-trained academic who served as Indonesia’s youngest head of an Islamic university and Education Minister in Jokowi’s first cabinet. Elected as governor of Jakarta in 2017, he too has had an infrastructure focus and a record of building directly on Jokowi’s legacy by expanding transportation and flood-control systems in the city of nearly 11 million people. Like Ganjar, he also has limited foreign policy experience.

Anies’ campaign vision is perhaps the most outward-looking in terms of maritime affairs. He vows to position Indonesia as a regional power in the Indo-Pacific that plays a balancing role in the international order. This involves Indonesia acting as an ASEAN leader and building on its central geographic position to serve as a connective force. Like the other candidates, he plans to strengthen Indonesia’s military presence in border areas and on outer islands. He also intends to establish the Navy as a blue water force and transform the Air Force into one that is capable of achieving air supremacy. He plans create a comprehensive national resilience strategy for Indonesia to adapt to non-conventional threats in the gray zone and cross-dimensional hybrid warfare. He also says he intends to strengthen Indonesia’s maritime security through multilateral cooperation to address non-state threats such as illegal extraction of marine resources, maritime piracy, drug smuggling, human trafficking, deliberate damage to the maritime environment, and territorial disputes. He pledges to advance Indonesia by eliminating illegal and unregulated fishing by protecting Indonesian waters from foreign intruders and to establish a new trade hub on the Strait of Malacca. Many of these goals seem appealing but far-fetched, particularly in the absence of a budgetary plan and a lack of foreign policy and defense expertise on his campaign team.

Regarding the domestic maritime marketplace, Anies’ official vision plans for an “Agromaritime Revolution” where fixed prices, subsidies, capital-provision activities, and deregulation combine to hike productivity, while public housing and other development assistance help fishermen. Transportation systems and telecommunications are to be also improved, especially in service of remote island communities. The goals sound similar to both Prabowo and Ganjar, but the means involve a greater degree of government intervention and less reliance on market forces.

Anies’ foreign policy speech at CSIS reflected an outward-looking ambition similar to that of his written campaign vision. He specifically criticized what he called the “transactional” and “pragmatic” foreign policy that Jokowi has favored. Recalling Indonesia’s global influence in the wake of the 1955 Bandung Conference, which promoted Afro-Asian economic and cultural cooperation, he has stated his intent for Indonesia to show leadership through values-based diplomacy fortified by smart power and built on stronger foundations of hard and soft power. His discussion of hard power featured a plan to strengthen defense and expand the use of naval diplomacy. Yet, it was unclear exactly what values would propel this leadership or specifically how he would resource the investments in hard and soft power. It is also less clear how much of the military transformation goals are inherent to his main agenda, as his speeches, both in CSIS and in the presidential debate, seem to signal he is more comfortable referring to indirect soft power elements such as cultural and food diplomacy.

Differences between the candidates can be inferred from how each refers to the kind of Indonesia they want to see. Prabowo speaks of a more dignified Indonesia, free from any elements that could interfere with its growth momentum. He talks of the country as being a good neighbor to everybody, establishing a web of strong friendships, and learning from various development models. Ganjar speaks of an “excelling” Indonesia that thrives from its geographic modalities, citing the country’s potential role as a food, energy, and critical mineral powerhouse. Anies talks of an Indonesia that actively behaves as a balancing force in the global order that will attempt to prevent the domination of certain powers while playing to its soft power appeal.

The third presidential debate on January 7, which focused on defense and international relations, also helps us understand the candidates’ relative priorities. Setting a tone for the debate, all three candidates played to popular sentiment by striking nationalistic notes that echoed the spirit of anti-colonialism. All three spoke of strengthening maritime sovereignty, increasing the defense budget, modernizing the national defense systems, developing the domestic defense industry by gaining technology transfers from abroad, and taking care of the welfare of soldiers and sailors. Yet, it was a debate where the candidates also sought to distinguish themselves.

Prabowo brought up his grand plan to modernize the nation’s weapon systems. This likely refers to what his camp has termed the “optimum essential force,” which is says is necessary to safeguard Indonesia’s riches from foreign intervention. He has coupled this with his so-called “good neighbor policy,” which seeks to widen the Indonesia’s circle of friends while avoiding hostility with other states. He has warned that a nation with weak defense readiness could be easily trampled.

Ganjar emphasized an Indonesia that plays to its strengths. He described his vision to establish an ocean guard (garda samudera) and to re-arrange the national defense posture to accommodate the rise of great power rivalry and the shift of Indonesia’s capital from Java to Kalimantan with the construction of Nusantara. He discussed how Indonesia should adapt to developments in advanced defense technology such as autonomous weapons, quantum sensors, hypersonic missiles, and cyber defense. In terms of pinpointing areas where military preparedness should be prioritized, Ganjar and Prabowo seem to agree that the next thing to focus on would be the outer islands of Indonesia, especially on improving logistics and the intensity of patrols. But Ganjar has also sought to contrast his stance with that of Prabowo by criticizing the defense minister’s weapons procurement policies.

Anies Baswedan’s debate presentation focused attention on soft power instruments, as diplomatic tools to strengthen Indonesia’s presence on the global stage. He stressed the importance of having a president who actively participates and speaks up in global forums to represent the country effectively, referring to Jokowi’s perceived lack of interest in leading in multilateral forums. In terms of defense posture and policies, Anies’ approach was to criticize the allocation of the defense budget, particularly expressing concerns about the purchase of used fighter jets and the insufficient allocation to contemporary threats that directly impact ordinary citizens, including cyber threats.

The primary concern for international observers may be in discerning how each candidate plans to wield instruments of national power when they respond to international turmoil. In this context, no candidate has been willing to be specific regarding how they will act on their ambitions to safeguard and secure national sovereignty in the face of foreign actors determined to infringe on those rights. For example, none have asserted support for international law as a means of defending national interests.

There will be a need to balance the ambition to advance and secure its maritime space with the need to listen to concerns from neighboring countries and countries depending on Indonesia’s maritime routes and riches. Prabowo needs to further convey how “optimal essential forces” can be optimized without inducing anxiety in others. Ganjar needs to convey how ideas of anti-access area denial and tighter surveillance will impact countries depending on transit through Indonesia’s strategic sea lanes. Anies needs to explain how he would resource and posture an Indonesian blue water navy and the direction toward which it would project its power.

When assessing Indonesia’s recent political scene, it is not uncommon to observe that, despite differences between candidates, all are likely to succumb to strong traditions of pragmatism.  Indeed, the winner will have to immediately offer trades to the losing candidates and other rivals in order to implement their policies both foreign and domestic. Thus, we are most likely to continue seeing an Indonesia that punches beneath its weight in the maritime domain. The alternative scenario would require the new president to balance political rivals with populist support for an independent foreign policy, a case that could rely on hyping up the threats posed by a foreign state. That threat could be an increasingly aggressive China but it could also be the West, perhaps an easier target due to colonial legacies and the widespread anti-Israeli sentiment that has been rising in recent months.