Germany Faces a Balancing Act in Engaging with Prabowo’s Indonesia

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Germany Faces a Balancing Act in Engaging with Prabowo’s Indonesia

The former general, who is set to assume office in October, will present a stiff test of Berlin’s values-based foreign policy.

Germany Faces a Balancing Act in Engaging with Prabowo’s Indonesia

Indonesian Defense Minister and President-elect Prabowo Subianto addresses the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, June 1, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/Prabowo Subianto

The recent decisive election of Prabowo Subianto as Indonesia’s president marks a significant development in the Indo-Pacific region – one that might have notable implications for German-Indonesian relations. Prabowo’s controversial past, including his close association with the Suharto regime and his subsequent self-exile, has made him a contentious figure in the eyes of Western powers. His election has the potential to highlight a divergence between Germany’s value-based foreign policy aspirations and its hard interests in the region.

Germany’s feminist and value-based foreign policy, led by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock from the environmentalist Green party, integrates principles of gender equality and human rights. This policy marks a shift from the previous “change through trade” paradigm, emphasizing a tougher stance on human rights and support for democratic movements in authoritarian countries. It also focuses on disarmament and addressing historical injustices, with the aim of promoting a more equitable global order.

Prabowo’s presidency comes at a time when Germany is intensifying its focus on the Indo-Pacific region, seeking to balance its extensive engagement with China by strengthening ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its member states. To this end, Indonesia should have strategic importance to policymakers in Berlin due to its sheer size and pivotal role within ASEAN. This is exemplified by German President Frank Walter Steinmeier’s visit to Indonesia in 2022. As the visit of the outgoing Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to Germany in 2023 showed, this interest is mutual.

Historically, German-Indonesian relations have been shaped by pragmatism rather than values, particularly during the Cold War, when the two nations were united by anti-communist sentiment. Relations between Indonesia and West Germany flourished after the bloody overthrow of postwar leader Sukarno by army general Suharto from 1965-66, and Bonn provided significant military support to Suharto’s subsequent regime, aligning with Washington’s geopolitical strategy in Southeast Asia. This cooperation persisted despite Suharto’s human rights violations.

Suharto established his grip on power through a mass purge of communist and anti-government sympathizers in Indonesia, a killing so widespread that it has been likened to genocide, resulting in over a million deaths during 1965-1966. Declassified documents pertaining to West German involvement in Suharto’s coup point to the support of the German foreign intelligence agency BND, as well as American knowledge and approval of the atrocities​.

Additionally, West Germany, and later united Germany, embarked on an extensive arms export program to Indonesia, culminating in the sale of dozens of ex-East German warships in the mid-1990s during Indonesia’s counterinsurgency campaign in East Timor. The campaign, which spanned three decades and resulted in over 100,000 deaths, concluded with an independent commission ruling that the Indonesian armed forces had engaged in targeted killings,​ while failing to quash Timorese resistance.

In the post-Cold War era, Germany’s relationship with Indonesia has shifted towards a focus on economic development and political reforms, particularly following the end of Suharto’s 31-year reign in 1998. Simultaneously, Indonesia implemented significant economic reforms, which, despite the severe impact of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998, positioned it as a second-generation tiger economy, albeit still lagging behind the likes of Singapore and South Korea.

However, in recent years Indonesia has experienced significant democratic backsliding, especially under Jokowi, who leaves office in October. While promoting economic modernization, Jokowi has also pursued populist policies, such as reintroducing the death penalty and increasing the military’s involvement in domestic affairs. Jokowi’s government has also defanged Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency KPK, weakening efforts to combat corruption​, which remains a significant problem in contemporary Indonesia

Prabowo’s election as president has raised concerns over further democratic backsliding. Prabowo, who secured over 50 percent of the vote, is a controversial figure, particularly in the West. His close association with the Suharto regime, during which he was Suharto’s son-in-law and a high-ranking military officer involved in human rights abuses, including in East Timor, is a sticking point. Although he was banned from Australia and denied entry to the U.S. due to these abuses, these sanctions have been lifted since he was appointed Jokowi’s defense minister in 2019.

Prabowo’s history includes self-imposed exile following Indonesia’s democratic transition and multiple failed presidential runs in 2014 and 2019. His return to politics has been marked by attempts to project a more moderate image, yet his military background and past have led many to fear a potential return to Suharto-era policies.

There is significant uncertainty over whether Prabowo will maintain democratization policies. While he has aligned his campaign with Jokowi’s policies, his past actions and statements suggest a preference for a more centralized and controlled form of governance. This could lead to increased restrictions on political freedoms and civil rights. Prabowo’s willingness to present unconventional proposals, such as a peace plan for Ukraine with “pro-Russian” elements, has also raised concerns among Western allies, including Germany, about his approach to international relations​.

Prabowo’s ascension to the Indonesian presidency could mark a significant moment for Indonesia’s positioning in the ongoing Sino-American rivalry. Committed to maintaining Indonesia’s strategic autonomy and non-alignment, Prabowo has emphasized the importance of independence in foreign affairs, though, under Prabowo’s tenure as defense minister, Indonesia saw increasing cooperation with American forces, perhaps reflecting a preference for strengthening ties with Washington. This was also evident through joint military exercises and plans to procure advanced American weaponry. Conversely, military cooperation with Beijing has been less forthcoming, with bilateral exercises halted in 2015, reportedly due to China’s maritime behavior. Prabowo’s military background, which includes special forces training at Fort Bragg, may influence his foreign policy decisions as president.

For Germany, Prabowo’s administration presents both opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, his focus on infrastructure development and economic growth aligns well with European interests in trade and investment. Germany, alongside the broader European Union, may find fruitful avenues for cooperation in renewable energy and technological transfer, areas where Prabowo has shown keen interest. This potential is exemplified by Jokowi’s visit last year to Germany’s Hannover Messe, one of the world’s largest industrial fairs. In its 2020 policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific region, Germany prioritized the establishment of an EU-Indonesia free trade agreement, though efforts to date have been unsuccessful. Additionally, Germany champions the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) with Indonesia within the G-7 framework, aiming to support Indonesia’s transition from coal to renewable energy sources.

Indonesia has demonstrated robust economic growth, and the significant reforms of recent years have cultivated a more favorable environment for enterprises. The country’s strategic position within ASEAN grants advantageous market access across Asia. Furthermore, several sectors, such as renewable energy, healthcare pharmaceuticals, and telecommunications present lucrative trade opportunities. Thus, Indonesia could play a pivotal role for German businesses aiming to diversify their supply chains away from China. The nation offers lower labor costs compared to China, coupled with robust economic growth and a rising middle class, providing a substantial and growing market for German products.

However, Prabowo’s nationalistic policies and sensitivity to perceived foreign interference could complicate diplomatic relations. Concerns about democratic backsliding and human rights under Prabowo’s leadership are likely to remain points of contention for the German-Indonesian relationship. For this reason, Germany’s current values-based approach to foreign policy could face significant challenges in its dealings with Prabowo’s Indonesia.

In conclusion, Germany faces a critical juncture between adhering to its value-based foreign policy approach in its dealings with Indonesia, which Prabowo may perceive as foreign interference, or falling back onto its historical strategy of pragmatism. The former risks creating a perception that could harm German-Indonesian relations and potentially push Indonesia closer to China, thereby weakening the Western alliance in the broader context of global competition with China. Conversely, if Germany adopts a more pragmatic approach, Indonesia could offer significant economic opportunities for the struggling German economy and play a role in deterring China’s influence. However, this might come at the cost of a backlash at home.