What Prabowo’s Victory Means For Indonesian Foreign Policy

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What Prabowo’s Victory Means For Indonesian Foreign Policy

The ascent of the former general is likely to shift the tone of the country’s international engagement, if not the substance.

What Prabowo’s Victory Means For Indonesian Foreign Policy

Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto speaks to journalist during a joint press conference with Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Richard Marles following their meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

“The first function of the nation is to protect, meaning defense, brothers.” So declared Prabowo Subianto, Indonesia’s minister of defense, in his opening statement to a presidential debate on January 7.

The former general continued: “We understand our country is very large, very rich. For hundreds of years countries from far away came to this archipelago to intervene, to interfere, to bring conflict, and to steal our wealth. Until we were independent, we also had to deal with our natural wealth being taken cheaply.”

Even as Prabowo assured the audience that Indonesia was a non-bloc power that sought only friendship, he also conjured up darker visions. “National power must be military power,” he said. “Without military power, the history of human civilization will teach us that a nation will be crushed like Gaza is currently.”

Such comments suggest that Prabowo, while presenting himself as the heir to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, might redirect Indonesian foreign policy in a more security-focused direction. If we take public comments Prabowo has made seriously, this may herald not just increased spending on defense but also a reshaping of trade and economic policy to fit Prabowo’s conceptions of national security. His nationalist tendencies and habit of making fiery off the cuff remarks may also cause heart palpitations among diplomats used to Jokowi’s low-key style. However, so far few have a clear idea as to what such rhetoric will actually amount.

Under Jokowi, the Indonesian government has rarely focused on security and geopolitical issues, preferring economic ones. When he first entered office, aides looking to convince the president of the importance of tensions over the South China Sea and Taiwan resorted to explaining that a war there would increase shipping insurance costs, thereby harming Indonesian exporters. Diplomats’ main duties became hawking Indonesian goods abroad. Jokowi’s interest in geopolitics increased slightly in his second term, as Indonesia navigated hosting the G-20 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the government’s main concern seemed to be the war’s impact on domestic inflation.

Experts and insiders, however, remain unclear on what Prabowo will actually want to do once he takes office in October. The deeply entrenched bureaucratic machine in Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry, coupled with Prabowo’s public commitment to follow Jokowi’s lead, all point to continuity, says Dr. Shafiah Muhibat, deputy executive director for research at Indonesia’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

At the same time, “This man [Prabowo] is absolutely unpredictable, and we don’t know who’s advising him.” Foreign policy experts in Indonesia see few of their ilk in Prabowo’s inner circle, the former general mainly surrounding himself with other ex-military men. Perhaps, the most prominent foreign policy figure close to Prabowo is Rosan Roeslani, a former ambassador to the U.S., but his background is in business rather than the foreign policy bureaucracy.

The potential for a break with orthodoxy is illustrated by Prabowo’s relatively relaxed stance on Palestine. The Indonesian foreign ministry has long taken a strong line on the issue, and Indonesia has never entertained diplomatic relations with Israel. However, when Australia moved its embassy to Jerusalem in 2018 Prabowo commented on the need to respect Australia’s sovereign decisions, sparking controversy and upsetting his Islamically-inclined political coalition at the time. The Indonesian military has, for some time, enjoyed cordial backchannel relations with Israeli counterparts, which may explain Prabowo’s unusual instincts on the matter.

Prabowo’s past comments and tenure as defense minister show a clear focus on security. Comments committing to Indonesia’s neutrality have occasionally been accompanied by riders that neutral countries must be strong ones. Since becoming defense minister in 2019 Prabowo has embarked on an ambitious military modernization program that saw defense spending rise by 15.1 percent in 2020, to $9.4 billion, and continued to rise, hitting $10.2 billion in 2022. Another $46.6 billion is expected to be spent during 2024-2029, much of it directed towards equipment purchases and building up a domestic defense industry.

Prabowo also may prove somewhat more accommodating to the security interests of the U.S. in the region. As defense minister he oversaw the scaling up of the Super Garuda Shield exercise. In 2023, the exercise not only included more troops than ever before, but also involved participation from Australia, Japan, Singapore, France and United Kingdom.

The relationship with Australia is even closer. Prabowo recently held high-level talks with Richard Marles, the Australian deputy prime minister and defense minister, for what Marles described as “the single deepest and most significant defense cooperation agreement” in the history of bilateral relations, which the two nations have pledged to sign in the coming months.

This is quite a statement indeed, considering the 1995 treaty between the two countries (later abrogated) committed them to “consult each other in the case of adverse challenges to either party or to their common security interests and, if appropriate, consider measures which might be taken either individually or jointly and in accordance with the processes of each Party.”

Prabowo has also taken an unusually relaxed view of AUKUS, the trilateral security pact established by Australia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. in 2021. Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry has firmly opposed the move on non-proliferation grounds. However, speaking at an international summit later that year, Prabowo suggested that while officially Indonesia opposed the program, he recognized Australia’s right to protect its own interests. “Every country will do what they can to protect their national interest. If they feel threatened, I, we, fully understand what they will do,” he said.

Still, the potential for a tilt to the West should not be overstated. Prabowo’s ambitious target of 7 percent GDP growth, if it can be achieved at all, will require lots of foreign direct investment, which would suggest continued strong ties with China – a key investor in strategic sectors. Leaning toward the U.S. and its allies on defense while turning toward Chinese investment and markets is also a dynamic that can be seen in many Southeast Asian countries.

However, Prabowo’s sovereigntist instincts could disrupt this, should there be clashes in the South China Sea. Dr. Yohanes Sulaiman, associate professor at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani in West Java, says that he expects Prabowo to be pragmatic in his policy, “but, all bets are off if it something concerning Indonesia’s sovereignty in the South China Sea, like the Philippines is seeing.” Much may depend in such circumstances on who is feeding Prabowo advice – his former generals, a seasoned foreign policy bureaucrat, a politician from one of the parties supporting him, or someone from the business community like Rosan.

Tensions between Prabowo’s need for strong economic diplomacy and his nationalist inclinations may create tensions in other areas. He has in the past promised to crack down on foreign workers in Indonesia, which could spark tensions with China, given the key role Chinese workers play in a number of strategic projects. Prabowo has not made these comments in some time, but the issue may resurface given popular tensions over the issue. A riot in January 2023 following a deadly industrial accident at a Chinese-operated nickel smelter saw the deaths of one Indonesian and one Chinese worker.

The European Union may also find itself in the firing line. Speaking at CSIS in November last year, a question by the Italian ambassador prompted Prabowo to launch into a meandering criticism of the EU, which appeared to focus on EU attitudes toward palm oil and new rules on products related to deforestation which many Indonesians see as discriminatory.

On trade, Prabowo has promised to continue Jokowi’s signature economic policy of downstreaming, i.e. using a mix of export bans and domestic incentives to force foreign companies to process metals in Indonesia. The policy with regards to nickel has been central Indonesia’s geoeconomic policy. Key investment by Chinese companies has reinforced good ties between the countries and built a strong new industry. But, tensions have grown over whether the U.S. will let electric vehicles made with Indonesian nickel qualify for generous tax credits and the EU has brought a case to the World Trade Organization over it.

Prabowo may well expand this policy to other areas, particularly agriculture, for reasons linked to his idiosyncratic security concerns. On the campaign trail Prabowo has made extravagant promises to rapidly increase the nation’s food self-sufficiency and to make Indonesia 100 percent self-sufficient in energy via mass adoption of biofuel. Observers may be tempted to dismiss this as mere campaign rhetoric. However, in appearances before international audiences Prabowo has made reference to the potential for global shortages of food, fuel, and clean water to become security risks in future. Any moves in an autarkic direction stemming from these concerns could create trade tensions with various nations.

For diplomats looking to navigate these potentially tricky waters Dr. Yohanes offers the following advice: “Don’t offend him and offer a lot of support and he will be your best friend for the next five or ten years.”