11.04.2024 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Indonesian President-elect Prabowo Subianto visited China and Japan

Indonesian President-elect Prabowo Subianto visited China and Japan

On 21 March this year, Indonesia officially announced the results of the general election held on 14 February, which elected a new President and Vice President, as well as the composition of the central parliament and local governments in all 38 provinces of the country. The official results of the most important part of the single day’s voting, for President and Vice-President, do not differ much from the exit polls published a day later.

For the next five years, these positions in the country’s “hard-presidential” system of governance will be held by former defence minister Prabowo Subianto and former president Widodo’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka. The outgoing President Joko Widodo (who has served two consecutive terms) will remain in office until October this year, when the inauguration of the newly elected successor will take place.

We note once again that the election process in Indonesia has been closely watched from the capitals of the world’s leading powers. This is understandable, given the extremely important strategic position that the largest, rapidly developing Muslim country (with a population of around 280 million) occupies in the Southeast Asian sub-region. It is here that the process of “managed competition” between the two main players in the current phase of the “great global game”, the United States and China, is taking place in a particularly acute form.

And while the Prabowo-Gibran ticket was probably not Washington’s preferred option, almost immediately after the election results were announced, Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent a congratulatory message to the newly elected president through the US embassy in Jakarta, wishing him “hand in hand in the interests of the peoples” of both countries.

Prabowo Subianto’s first foreign trip, however, was to the two leading countries in the region in which Indonesia itself is located. These are the People’s Republic of China and Japan (as well as, not too far away, India and, very close by, Australia). The US, which is now closely involved in regional affairs, is far away in territorial terms.

It cannot be ruled out that, for some reason (e.g. internal planning) and after a certain period of time, Washington will radically reconsider the degree of its involvement in world affairs in general and in Southeast Asia in particular. That is to say, it will once again use the same peculiarity of the country’s geographical location as a factor in ensuring its own security (as it did in the early days of the formation of the state).

It should be noted, by the way, that in the current “neo-isolationist” circles of the American establishment there is a view that the United States could well be of interest to any external partner as a powerful technological, commercial and economic power. And not in its current capacity as a possessor of “nuclear-missile-aircraft-strike” potential. Generally speaking, all other actors in international politics would do well to position themselves primarily in the former capacity.

This, by the way, would undermine the initial positions of a particularly stupid branch of propaganda about the desire of “Americans” (“Europeans”, “the West as a whole”) “to prevent the violent restoration of the USSR by destroying the Russian Federation”. It is not clear, however, why such a “restoration” is necessary first and foremost for today’s Russia itself.

In the author’s opinion, the problem in general is exactly the opposite. That is, we should accept (potential and officially formalised) applications for membership in Russia from some currently independent countries only if there is undoubted evidence of such a desire on the part of the overwhelming majority of their populations. And also (and above all) taking into account the interests of the Russian Federation itself. In this case, the notorious “power factor” remains outside the format of this process.

Returning to the two leading Asian powers mentioned above, we note that, unlike the United States, there is and will never be an option for them to “step back” in their behavioural strategy in Southeast Asia (due to the same factor of geography). What is more, not only does the relationship between the two countries have a complex history, but today it is moving more and more definitively (or rather “returning after 80 years”) to the centre of all events in Southeast Asia.

The countries of much lesser importance (which are all the countries that make up the region) must somehow balance the tensions created by the conflicting interests and concrete actions of China and Japan.

This is what the previous Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, did for two consecutive terms. And by all appearances, the same policy of balancing will be continued by his current successor, who made his first foreign trip only to Beijing and Tokyo.

For the latter, Indonesia is of interest not only in its own right (for the reasons outlined above), but also as the tacit leader of the ASEAN regional association, which brings together 10 of the 11 countries of the Southeast Asian region, and which is extremely important for all global players. The real importance of this association, which has almost nothing in common with the EU, should not be exaggerated (due to the circumstances discussed more than once in NEO).

In particular, there have been no positive developments in realising the ambitious 20-year plan to turn ASEAN into a “quasi-EU”. As was the case 20 years ago, intra-ASEAN trade still accounts for less than a third of the total trade of all 10 countries (compared with around 80 per cent for the EU). Each of them is behaving differently in terms of the political tensions mentioned above. While the Philippines is returning to a pro-American (and more recently pro-Japanese) course, Cambodia and Laos are clearly looking towards China. All the others, including Indonesia, are somewhere between these extremes.

But the very existence of ASEAN should not be ignored. On the contrary, each of the leading players and on every suitable occasion never tires of pouring sweet verbal oil into the ears of both the (very small) ASEAN administration and the leaders of all its member countries on the subject of its importance in regional and even world affairs. The occasion of the new Indonesian President’s forthcoming visit to China and Japan was no exception. The day before, the press in both countries spilled a hefty portion of the aforementioned oil.

In Beijing, Prabowo Subianto held talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, then with Premier Li Qiang and Defence Minister, Admiral Dong Jun. This last meeting is no less remarkable than the first two, since it was only last December that Dong Jun, who took up the post in question, had previously been commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy. And it is precisely the activation in recent years in the South China Sea of the naval component of the Armed Forces of all participants in the game unfolding in the South China Sea that is proving to be the main challenge to the maintenance of political stability here.

The details of this meeting are unknown, but at the reception of the Chinese leader the guest heard quite positive words for him. In particular, President Xi, recalling the large-scale infrastructure projects currently underway in Indonesia with China’s participation, and referring to the history of friendly bilateral relations, expressed his hope to continue “mutually beneficial cooperation and joint development to become leaders of “South-South cooperation”. It is noteworthy that by doing so, the Chinese leader referred his country to the “Global South” as well. In response, the guest expressed similar wishes.

In Tokyo, Prabowo’s interlocutors were Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Defence Minister Minoru Kihara (in office since September 2023). It seems that these were brief and rather introductory meetings, during which the participants exchanged general remarks similar to those in Beijing. Nevertheless, Kishida’s promise to help Indonesia join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a kind of “prestigious club” that currently includes 38 (mostly Western) countries, was noteworthy.

Finally, we would like to reiterate that the role of the countries of the region (especially Indonesia) in the development of the situation in Southeast Asia, while important, will continue to be determined mainly by the increasing presence of the leading participants in the current phase of the “Great World Game”.

On 10 April, two of them, Japan and the United States, will hold another summit in Washington. During this meeting, Fumio Kishida will no doubt share his impressions of the new Indonesian president, Prabowo Subianto, with Joseph Biden.


Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the problems of the Asia-Pacific region, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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