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New president, same foreign policy? Decoding Indonesia's foreign policy direction post-presidential election 2024

Fulcrum - March 8, 2024

Indira Zahra Aridati and Melinda Martinus – Last month, Indonesia held its presidential and general elections, in one of the busiest election years alongside more than 60 other countries. In spite of warnings of electoral violations committed by the incumbent leading up to the election, voting day unfolded peacefully. After vying in the executive race since 2009, the fourth time was the charm for Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto. While the country awaits the official vote count by the General Elections Commission (KPU), quick count results from six reliable polling platforms indicate Prabowo's strong lead of nearly 60 per cent of votes, reducing the likelihood of a run-off election in June.

Besides delivering on a list of domestic promises, including providing free lunches for over 80 million children, Prabowo will also lead as president on Indonesia's foreign policy (FP). While he will not manage the country's FP alone, Indonesia's impending leadership change raises questions about the country's FP direction and its role vis-a-vis ASEAN, as the bloc's largest member and de facto leader, even in years when it is not Chair.

Continuity or change?

Much of Prabowo's election campaign was about pledging continuity with incumbent President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo's policies. Despite FP taking a backseat in Prabowo's campaign, as Indonesia's presidential race revolves heavily around national concerns, his FP stance echoed his domestic rhetoric of continuity. Prabowo emphasised his commitment to Indonesia's long sacrosanct principles of bebas aktif (free and active) and non-alignment. Nevertheless, Indonesia's FP under Prabowo will see changes influenced by his military background, long political career, and personal beliefs, not to mention competing domestic concerns affecting democratic consolidation. This will shape his FP in two ways: first, in actions such as possibly allowing more assertive interventions by Indonesia's diplomats on international issues of domestic concern, and second, through administrative actions such as his choice of staff – from his pick of foreign minister to who he will select as Indonesia's Ambassadors in strategic embassies like Washington and Beijing.

Prabowo is a familiar figure in Indonesian politics, with a long career that has garnered as many criticisms as praises. In contrast to Jokowi, who ascended the ranks without strong ties to the country's political and military elites, Prabowo hails from the oligarchic elite of the New Order period and a powerful, storied family. His cosmopolitan and multilingual background, combined with his leadership of the Defence Ministry (2019-2024), positions him as an experienced player on the international stage. An August 2023 survey conducted by Katadata Insight Center found that Prabowo ranked first out of ten figures deemed most capable of representing Indonesia in international forums. These factors will likely lead to Prabowo taking a more hands-on approach to FP, certainly compared to a lacklustre Jokowi in his first presidential term (2014-2019).

The seeming evolution of Prabowo from the strongman who struck alliances with hardline Islamists in his 2019 presidential campaign to a 'gemoy' dancing grandpa shows his flexibility in adjusting his image and actions to fit the country's changing political landscape when it serves his interests. As defence minister, Prabowo has been willing to promote multilateralism and expand Indonesia's range of defence partners. Since he took over the portfolio in 2019, Indonesia has signed defence cooperation agreements (DCAs) with partners including Lao PDR, France, Malaysia, and the United States.

Yet, this endeavour might lead to apparent contradictions or conflicts in rhetoric and practice. While Prabowo's oft-used refrain has been "We don't need Europe anymore", in the context of Indonesia's palm oil exports, his ministry (Kemhan) has in its quest for modernisation purchased a plethora of defence equipment from Europe. Despite Indonesia's consistent support for Palestine and repeated calls for the cessation of violence in Gaza after 7 October 2023, Kemhan's military suppliers include Israel albeit only to a small extent. Last, although he advocates a "good neighbour" policy, Prabowo has emphasised a preference for other powers in Asia, such as Japan, South Korea, China, and India.

Amid rising geopolitical tensions, it is not unusual for countries to engage more with neighbours to maintain regional stability. This is evident in Europe, where a majority of Europeans favourably view EU membership, citing the bloc's ability to uphold peace and strengthen security. This, however, raises questions about Prabowo's stated commitment to Indonesia's principle of non-alignment. Depending on how the U.S.-China rivalry pans out in Southeast Asia (both great powers have Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships with Indonesia) and the wider dynamics in the Indo-Pacific, a president Prabowo might have to consider recalibrating his stance on non-alignment, particularly as the region grapples with tensions in the South China Sea.

Nevertheless, there are a few constants that are likely to remain key in Prabowo's FP positioning. First, he will be a president who wants a strong defence system as a prerequisite for Indonesia's prosperity and security. Second, his belief that FP begins at home and thus should serve domestic interests will reign supreme. Prabowo has referenced on many occasions the adage attributed to Thucydides, "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must", including during his 2019 and 2024 presidential debates and in the opening of his book, Paradox of Indonesia. Prabowo's perception of the world is starkly realist. For instance, he views Israel's actions as oppression in Gaza and a conflict over land, and has cited Palestine's lack of military power as the reason for Israel's actions.

Prabowo will likely pursue a developmentalist approach to FP, as he – like his predecessors – must carefully balance between the country's urgent demographic and economic versus defence modernisation needs. At the top of the list would be securing more foreign investments to fulfill his promises of infrastructure development, including the planned capital relocation to Nusantara, whilst maintaining internal stability through sustained economic development.

Prabowo's choice of foreign minister (Menlu) will carry significant weight. While the position has traditionally been held by technocrats, he will need to strike a balance in his Cabinet appointments even if he wishes to appoint a career professional. Prabowo needs to reward political appointees or campaign allies, as his own party and coalition fall short of a parliamentary majority. Prabowo's relationship with the foreign ministry (Kemlu) will also be critical to watch. Examples of where he has differed from Kemlu (as defence minister) include his more sympathetic view of AUKUS and his infamous "peace plan" for Russia and Ukraine, delivered at the June 2023 Shangri-La Dialogue apparently without prior consultation with Kemlu.

The last domestic factor is the extent of Jokowi's influence after he officially steps down. One presidential aide recently commented that Prabowo would "involve" Jokowi in forming his new Cabinet. More symbolically, Jokowi can still wield influence by giving rewards until he relinquishes his post in late October, such as his recent conferment of an honorary four-star general ranking for Prabowo. However, the power dynamics are likely to shift once Prabowo assumes the presidency.

A new captain at the helm

If the unofficial election results hold, Prabowo Subianto will become Indonesia's eighth president following the country's two relatively successful years in international and regional diplomacy, marked by its G20 presidency in 2022 and Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2023. Indonesia has a minor opportunity to reaffirm and strengthen its role as a middle power; it was re-elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for a sixth term (2024-2026). While Indonesia's active diplomacy on Gaza – lauded by Middle Eastern nation-states – could enhance its influence, it is ironic that a presumptive president with a chequered history on human rights will lead the country during this term.

Nevertheless, even his past critics from abroad recognise the utility of welcoming Prabowo as Indonesia's new president, lest their own countries lose out on doing business with the world's largest majority Muslim country. How smooth Indonesia's FP journey under Prabowo will be depends on whether the retired general can deal constructively with his neighbours and international partners, to reinforce a rules-based order, while not always looking through a realist lens.

[Indira Zahra Aridati is a Research Officer at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. Melinda Martinus is the Lead Researcher in Socio-cultural Affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.]

Source: https://fulcrum.sg/aseanfocus/new-president-same-foreign-policy-decoding-indonesias-foreign-policy-direction-post-presidential-election-2024