Army General Suspected Of ‘Chinese Massacre’ To Lead Indonesia; Will Prabowo Join Philippines To Stop Beijing?

OPED By Amb Gurjit Singh

The quick results of the Indonesian presidential elections of 14 February 2024 give an overwhelming mandate to the current defense minister, Gen. Prabowo Subianto, and his running mate, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the son of outgoing President Jokowi. This interesting political axis indicates that Prabowo will continue the Jokowi legacy.

This legacy has several aspects, including a close relationship with China in the economic and infrastructure segments.

Will Prabowo balance Indonesia’s relationship with China? There is a history to this. Prabowo is criticized for his past human rights record by Western analysts.

What is forgotten is that in 1998, there was a large-scale rioting in which the Chinese population in Indonesia suffered. The alleged involvement of Prabowo and his cohort was suspected at that time, and the victims were Chinese. Charges were never proven, and Prabowo has outlived them with the present victory.

Prabowo, during the second presidential campaign against Jokowi in 2019, held Jokowi responsible for an overt tilt towards China in his first term. He sought a balance in Indonesia’s foreign and economic policy.

Prabowo told various audiences at that time that he would run a balanced policy with strategic autonomy in which other partners of Indonesia would have a level field.

However, after his second defeat to Jokowi in 2019, Prabowo joined Jokowi’s grand coalition, brought his Gerindra party into government, and became the defense minister.

Now, there was no more talk of restraining China, but Prabowo’s role as defense minister saw an incremental increase in Indonesian defense forces.

This had two significant aspects. First, instead of expanding the army further, more budget was spent on renewing the Air Force and the Navy, which had been traditionally neglected. Moreover, Indonesia moved away from defense purchases from the traditional support from Russia, and no opening was provided to China. The US, France, Korea, Turkey, and India became better partners in the new expansion.

Therefore, in a sense, Prabowo’s period as minister of defense did balance closeness to China by strategical shifting but not reducing the economic partnership.

Now, Prabowo is committed to continuing the Jokowi legacy. This has three main parts. The first is to continue the expansion of the development of Indonesian infrastructure.

Secondly, the improvement in the investment conditions around mineral processing, particularly in nickel, to build Indonesian capacities and value addition. Thirdly, to build the new capital Nusantara in Kalimantan.

In all these, China has a big role to play. China is Indonesia’s biggest trading partner and has invested quite heavily in infrastructure like the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway and the immense floating solar power at Cirata.

How will Prabowo balance this except by asking other countries to invest? If the Chinese stranglehold on the infrastructure development of Indonesia could be breached, that would be some achievement. However, Premier Li Qiang promised Indonesia a new FDI of $21.7 billion when he visited Jakarta for the EAS in September 2023.

Chinese are the biggest investors in Indonesia in nickel mining, which is an essential part of the EV supply chain. Indonesia wishes to be a part of the supply chain and wants more local processing facilities.

The problem is that Chinese investors are blamed for not creating enough local jobs and not carrying out sustainable mining practices, leading to local protests. Greater attention by Chinese investors to employment generation, value addition, and capacity building of local staff, as well as their health and welfare measures, would need to be pursued by the Prabowo administration.

Where Nusantara is concerned, there are several promises by Indonesia as partners, including China, Korea, Japan, and the UAE, but nothing concrete has emerged.

Another Jokowi legacy, which is not talked about, is that despite China helping Indonesia economically, it has intruded into the Indonesian EEZ in the Natuna Sea and, during the Jokowi period, made Indonesia a part of China’s aggressive intent in the South China Sea.

Prior to that, in the SBY period, there were limited Chinese intrusions, and Indonesia believed that they were out of the nine-dash line.

During the Jokowi period, Chinese intrusions by fishermen, often backed by the Coast Guard, indulging in IUU fishing were a problem. Various ministries under Jokowi had apprehended intruding fishing trawlers and sank some, but the Chinese always seemed to get away.

PLAN Nanchang Type 055 Destroyer (via Platform X)

Now, it remains to be seen whether, under Prabowo, Indonesia would adopt a more robust approach to defending its economic interests in the Natuna Sea.

During the campaign debates and interactive meetings, Prabowo presented a calmer picture of engaging China. He seems to suggest that where dealing with the nine-dash nine is concerned, he would consult other ASEAN countries who are similarly threatened by China.

Where this will lead is uncertain because there is no unity among the five ASEAN countries having this problem. The Philippines is robustly challenging China, which is aggressively attacking Philippines outposts.

The Philippines has established closer linkages with the US and Japan. Vietnam has suffered a lot similarly but seems to live with the problem rather than jeopardize its economic interests with China.

The same goes for Malaysia and Brunei, who seem to turn a blind eye to Chinese intrusions in their areas. Now, it is up to Indonesia, the largest country and economy in ASEAN, to decide whether they are going to follow a more autonomous policy, which means that Chinese intrusions need to be resisted diplomatically and physically.

Prabowo, as president, is likely to continue the statesman-like approach of Prabowo, the defense minister. He is not a presidential candidate who contested against Jokowi and, therefore, is not expected to make major deviations from Jokowi’s China policy.

Prabowo may like to have a more balanced approach towards China, open doors to other partners, and protect Indonesian interests while pursuing a policy of strategic autonomy and closer engagement with the global south to a greater extent.

In this, China will remain important but perhaps lose some space.

  • Gurjit Singh is a former Ambassador to Germany, Indonesia, Ethiopia, ASEAN, and the African Union Chair, CII Task Force on Trilateral Cooperation in Africa, Professor, IIT Indore.
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