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President Biden Should Congratulate Indonesia’s Prabowo Now

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President Biden Should Congratulate Indonesia’s Prabowo Now

Washington is awaiting until the release of official results before contacting the president-elect. But waiting would be strategically costly.

President Biden Should Congratulate Indonesia’s Prabowo Now

Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto stands on stage during his final election rally at a stadium in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 10, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/Prabowo Subianto

President Joe Biden should immediately congratulate Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto on his presumptive victory in the country’s presidential election on February 14. This simple action would signal that the U.S. government understands new and evolving political realities in Asia. China, our geopolitical and economic competitor in the Indo-Pacific, has already done it.  So have U.S. allies and partners such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Netherlands, India, and Singapore.

As a general policy, the U.S. government does not congratulate a foreign leader-elect until election results are certified. This is expected on March 20. U.S. officials say they are following “precedence,” citing Indonesia’s previous election, when now-outgoing President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo won re-election in 2019, and they waited to congratulate him until the release of the “official” results.

Waiting for official election results to send presidential congratulations makes sense when those results will be out in a few days, but not when it will take six weeks and U.S. regional partners and competitors have already weighed in.  The Indonesian National Election Commission, now in the process of tabulating the vote, found that by  February 27 Prabowo was leading with just under 59 percent of the votes with three-quarters of the ballots counted. It is a margin that obviates the need for a second round of elections to ensure that one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote. It is a done deal and a strategic “own goal” for Washington to wait.

Prabowo, a former general,  was overwhelmingly elected in what is widely considered to have been a legitimate process, and broadly representative of Indonesian voters’ preferences. Prabowo served as defense minister in the outgoing Jokowi administration and in that role was enthusiastically welcomed in Washington by Biden’s administration.

Prabowo has many pro-business plans for his country. And China is not waiting for official results before seizing the advantage created by Washington’s stalling and talking to the incoming president. In the context of the sharp economic and geopolitical competition we face in Asia, it is in American interests to reach out and to do so now. We are already late.

The current hesitation in Washington could hurt U.S.-Indonesia ties in the near term and could cost U.S. companies as they work to align with the incoming administration and make the case for working with American partners.

Indonesia is important to Washington because of its size and geopolitical location along the critical shipping lanes of the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. Its population of 280 million makes it the world’s fourth-most populous country and the third-largest democracy after India and the United States. Indonesia, with its $1.2 trillion economy, is the planet’s biggest producer of nickel, much of which is mined and processed by companies from China. It is also one of the world’s largest coal exporters and one the largest greenhouse gas emitters. So it is important that Washington and Jakarta cooperate.

Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world and in November Jokowi was the first leader of a Muslim nation to visit the White House after the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7. Jokowi called on the United States to exert more pressure on Israel to stop its military attacks in Gaza, where Indonesia had long run a civilian hospital. U.S. officials have said they hope Indonesia will play a role in the eventual peace process and rebuilding of Gaza.

During Jokowi’s Washington visit the two countries agreed to find ways to implement the Just Energy Transition Partnership,  a $20 billion funding agreement pledged by the United States and the Group of Seven countries to help Indonesia clean up its energy sector. They also agreed to step up cooperation on defense, including on cybersecurity, space, and joint military exercises.  Jokowi had hoped to negotiate an agreement on critical minerals that would allow Indonesia to supply minerals for electric vehicle batteries to the United States, but in the end, it appears that the president’s efforts failed.

The Biden administration is full of Asia experts who “get it” and should be able to cut through precedent and legal tradition and update our approach. It is important that Biden send a message to Prabowo as soon as possible.