Indonesia’s Prabowo Meets China’s Xi on First Visit Since Election

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Indonesia’s Prabowo Meets China’s Xi on First Visit Since Election

China’s hosting of the Indonesian president-elect highlights its desire to hit the ground running when the new administration takes office in October.

Indonesia’s Prabowo Meets China’s Xi on First Visit Since Election

Chinese President Xi Jinping at right shakes hands with Indonesian President-elect Prabowo Subianto at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, April 1, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/Prabowo Subianto

From March 31 to April 2, Prabowo Subianto visited China at the invitation of President Xi Jinping, his first foreign trip since winning Indonesia’s presidential election in February. During the visit, Xi Jinping congratulated Prabowo on his electoral success and highlighted the high quality of the two nations’ recent bilateral cooperation, notably exemplified by projects like the Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Railway project.

Prabowo voiced his full support for enhancing Indonesia-China relations, affirming his commitment to continuing President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s policy of friendship with China. He discussed the possibility of strengthening cooperation in fields such as the economy, trade, maritime security, and poverty alleviation. Moreover, Prabowo acknowledged China as a key defense partner of Indonesia and affirmed plans to boost defense industry cooperation.

Additionally, Prabowo expressed eagerness to learn from the Chinese Communist Party’s governance experience and said that he appreciated China’s significant contributions to Indonesia’s economic growth. He also reaffirmed Jakarta’s one-China policy and commended China’s stance on global issues, including the Palestinian question.

Prabowo’s visit represented something of a departure from the norm, as newly elected heads of state, including in Indonesia, typically refrain from overseas visits prior to their inauguration.

China’s promptness in engaging with Prabowo underscores Beijing’s keenness to secure Jakarta’s favor amidst escalating tensions in the South China Sea, particularly with neighboring countries like the Philippines. This meeting, following the congratulations extended by the Chinese ambassador to Indonesia, Lu Kang, soon after the February 14 election, showcased China’s strategic interest in cultivating a strong rapport with the incoming Indonesian leadership.

With the United States and China intensifying their competition for dominance in Southeast Asia, Beijing sees Indonesia as pivotal in maintaining a balance of power. By encouraging Prabowo to make an early visit, China aims to ensure the continuation of Indonesia’s China policy under Jokowi.

This move also serves to emphasize China’s amicable relationship with Southeast Asia’s most populous nation, particularly ahead of the significant trilateral summit involving the United States, Japan, and the Philippines. Conversely, Prabowo’s early visit to China, despite not yet assuming office officially, underscores the significant role that China will play during his coming five-year term.

This visit is significant for two interrelated reasons. First, it shows that Prabowo recognizes China as a strategic economic partner, reflecting his commitment to fostering mutually beneficial ties in this sector. Secondly, it represents a continuation of Jokowi’s legacy, emphasizing the economic dimension of Indonesia’s foreign policy agenda, which will likely also govern the Prabowo administration’s engagement with other significant outside powers.

China has emerged as Indonesia’s primary trading and investment partner in recent years, with substantial investments spanning various sectors, from nickel processing to large-scale infrastructure projects like the Jakarta-Bandung railway.

During his election campaign, Prabowo positioned himself as a successor to Jokowi, who prioritized economic growth through infrastructure development. Analysts interpret Prabowo’s choice of Beijing for his inaugural overseas visit as a strategic move to gain insights into China’s long-term plans and foster closer collaboration over the next five years, with a particular focus on leveraging Chinese investments to drive Indonesia’s economic growth and development agenda.

However, during Prabowo’s meeting with Xi, a number of critical issues were seemingly unaddressed, notably concerning the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea. This omission is particularly concerning given recent findings by Indonesia Strategic and Defense Studies and Kompas Research and Development, indicating that nearly three-quarters of Indonesians perceive China’s activities in the South China Sea as a direct threat to Indonesia’s sovereignty.

Prabowo’s reluctance to broach the South China Sea issue follows a worrying trend of prioritizing economic engagement over safeguarding the country’s maritime security By sidestepping this crucial matter, Prabowo  is not only failing to address one of the region’s most pressing geopolitical challenges but is also implicitly acquiescing to Beijing’s aggressive territorial ambitions. Despite his strong stance on the issue in the past years, including during the presidential debates, this meeting sends a disconcerting message that to gain economic benefits from China, Prabowo will follow Jokowi’s path in avoiding antagonizing Beijing on the issue.

Indeed, the meeting between Prabowo and Xi echoes a familiar pattern observed during Jokowi’s tenure, wherein crucial issues are left unaddressed. Neglecting these critical issues, such as concerns surrounding Chinese investments in Indonesia, risks exacerbating existing problems ranging from environmental degradation to labor rights abuses.

Prabowo’s failure to engage with these pressing concerns raises doubts about the government’s commitment to effective governance and protecting the interests of its citizens.

In dealing with China, Prabowo’s administration should first recognize Indonesia’s significant bargaining power in its relationship with China, particularly concerning the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Indonesia’s status as the largest economy in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its membership in the G-20 underscore its economic strength and strategic significance to China. Prabowo must grasp the importance of understanding China’s domestic conditions and interests, particularly regarding the BRI, which was conceived as a response to China’s own economic challenges. Therefore, it will be crucial for Indonesia to ensure mutual benefits from the cooperation while safeguarding against potential negative impacts.

This bargaining power should allow Prabowo to display firmness in addressing China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. Despite China’s frequent illegal patrols in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, Indonesia’s response has historically been passive, with its navy merely monitoring from a distance. While bilateral relations with China across various sectors are improving, Indonesia must not compromise its sovereignty for economic gains.

Prabowo should also prioritize the renegotiation of existing cooperation projects, especially those with potential debt traps. Scrutinizing agreements like the Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Railway and learning from other countries’ experiences in renegotiating with China can help mitigate risks and prevent further economic damage. Additionally, the administration must address social and environmental impacts stemming from Chinese investments, promoting corporate governance and involving all stakeholders to ensure adherence to standards. Prabowo should also focus on protecting local workers’ rights and negotiating fair employment terms for Chinese workers.

While the visit may represent China’s importance to Prabowo’s foreign policy once he takes office in October, it should not be narrowly interpreted as an exclusive alignment, as he’s slated to meet Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida this week. Visiting Japan, a strong ally of the U.S., represents Prabowo’s effort at maintaining Indonesia’s historically non-aligned stance.