Indonesia has pursued a pragmatic foreign policy for the past decade, but could that change after the presidential elections in February? The three candidates offer disparate diplomatic styles.
Because Joko Widodo, the current president of Indonesia, cannot seek reelection due to term limits, the presidential elections on February 14 the race is between Anies Baswedan, a former governor of Jakarta; Ganjar Pranowo, a former governor of Central Java; and Prabowo Subianto, the current Minister of Defense. Indonesia’s diplomacy under Widodo has been described as pragmatic because it hedges between China and the United States. Like many other Southeast Asian states, Indonesia doesn’t perceive the threat of the US-China competition as black and white. Instead, it looks to China for economic benefits and cooperates with the United States for security benefits. Due to Indonesia’s long-standing “free and active” foreign policy doctrine, Jakarta has enjoyed close ties with both superpowers without formally aligning itself with either.
According to some, Indonesia is Asia’s greatest geopolitical “prize” because it can tilt the strategic balance of the entire Indo-Pacific region. This means that whoever becomes the next president will find themselves with a busy international agenda, including the ongoing Myanmar crisis, tensions in the Taiwan Straits, China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea, and the ramifications of the AUKUS deal, a pact between the United States, Britain, and Australia which Jakarta has lambasted over concerns that it might elevate regional tensions and increase the chance of a naval confrontation involving China. Despite its non-alignment, being near the geographic center of the Indo-Pacific means Indonesia cannot ignore the rivalry between Washington and Beijing. If cross-strait tensions keep escalating, neither China nor the United States could close off the other’s access to the Malacca Strait without Indonesia’s help because of its proximity to Australia (the United States’ partner) and Chinese military installations in the South China Sea.
An Overview of Indonesia’s Ties with China, the US, and Europe Under Widodo
Despite tensions between China and Indonesia in the South China Sea, they have formed closer ties under the Widodo presidency. They have signed several memoranda of understanding (MOUs) to synchronize China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with Indonesia’s Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF) framework, a vision announced by Widodo in 2014 to make maritime elements in the Indo-Pacific priorities for Indonesia’s development paradigm. Cooperation between Indonesia, under Widodo, and China, under President Xi Jinping, can be considered the closest Beijing has to an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member state.
While China is the largest trading partner and a major investor in almost every Southeast Asian country, Beijing’s success in Indonesia is, perhaps, more visible than elsewhere in the region because of Chinese infrastructure projects in the archipelago. Indonesia’s first high-speed railway was inaugurated in October 2023 and was built by Chinese firms, which surprisingly won the contract over a strong bid from Japan. Indonesia supported Beijing’s one-China policy after former US speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in 2022. Widodo has also recently said that he is sure that China will eventually become Indonesia’s largest foreign investor. This came three months after Xi stated that China wanted to take its cooperation with Indonesia to a higher level because the two countries’ visions are highly aligned.
On the other hand, Widodo’s presidency has made clear to the United States that even though the US-Indonesia security partnership has generally improved in recent years, there are limits. Washington’s goal of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific is impossible without participation from Indonesia, and the United States has been frustrated by Indonesia’s close ties with China and Jakarta’s relatively limited partnership with Washington (in comparison to, say, the United States’ robust collaboration with Singapore, a fellow ASEAN member state). Indonesia, for instance, refused to host American spy planes in 2020, yet US forces are allowed access to Singapore’s air and naval bases.
There are also European interests in the region, but relations with Indonesia have been dented by disagreements over the EU’s planned ban on palm oil imports (Indonesia is the world’s largest palm oil exporter) and disputes over nickel tariffs. Widodo’s pragmatic approach to his foreign policy has sharply contrasted with the values-based diplomacy favored by the EU. Nonetheless, the EU and Indonesia are discussing a free trade agreement, which both sides want to conclude in 2024.
So, how might the next president impact Indonesia’s foreign policy?
Anies Baswedan: Values-Based Diplomacy
Announcing his candidacy after a 5-year stint as governor of Jakarta, Baswedan has vocally criticized Widodo’s brand of diplomacy as “transactional diplomacy” and pledged to conduct values-based diplomacy if he wins the presidential election next month. Baswedan has claimed that Indonesia’s foreign policy relies too much on transactional aspects, such as trade and investment, to the point where it neglects clear values. According to him, if Indonesia were to apply values-based diplomacy, it could still criticize partners when they blatantly violate values, such as Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, which Indonesia so far has withheld itself from doing. This, in turn, would provide Indonesia with a better global standing and a proper moral grounding if it needs help from other countries when facing threats.
Baswedan has vowed to maintain Indonesia’s Free and Active foreign policy doctrine and to maintain engagement with China and the United States, but his proposed values-based diplomacy is unlikely to please non-Western powers, such as Russia, which has previously thanked Indonesia for not isolating it over its conflict with Ukraine and has claimed that the Russia-Indonesia partnership can grow stronger. Indonesia’s stance in not condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been criticized, although Jakarta has remained firm in its stance, such as by resisting pressure from the West to disinvite Russia from last year’s G20 meeting, which Indonesia hosted.
In this regard, the United States might be able to aim for even deeper ties with Indonesia should Baswedan be elected president because values-based diplomacy is also practiced by several key American allies in the Indo-Pacific region, such as Japan and South Korea. Of note, in February 2023, the US Ambassador to Indonesia, Sung Yong Kim, visited the office of the Prosperous Justice Party, one of Baswedan’s foremost supporters. According to some political observers, this visit indicated Washington’s approval of Baswedan’s candidacy.
Baswedan recently suggested (on November 8, 2023) that Indonesia has to adopt a “smart power” approach in its foreign policy, wherein hard power, such as a strong economy and a flexible defense force, is merged with what he called the “Indonesian brand”, such as proactive diplomacy, to bolster domestic institutions.
Zulfan Lindan, a politician from Nasdem Party, another party supporting Baswedan’s candidacy, has stated that US support for Baswedan should be regarded as normal because he has consistently avoided visiting China and Russia. Indeed, in his previous role as governor, he visited the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Luxembourg. Moreover, Baswedan is a Fulbright Scholar who finished his master’s and doctorate degrees (in international security, economic policy, and political science respectively) in the United States. Hence, American schools of thought may have influenced his foreign policy perspectives. If he is elected president and Jakarta’s foreign policy alignment shifts closer to the West, it may induce discomfort in Moscow and Beijing.
Ganjar Pranowo: Pragmatic Diplomacy
Unlike his two rivals, Pranowo has comparatively little experience in foreign policy. According to Jefferson Ng, Pranowo’s lack of foreign policy experience means that he is more likely to rely on the institutional memory of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under Widodo. In other words, Widodo’s pragmatic diplomatic style could be maintained by Pranowo. Pranowo himself has admitted that, if elected, he plans to continue Widodo’s development programs. He has also said that he will comply with the Free and Active foreign policy doctrine if elected, ensuring Indonesia continues its non-alignment.
However, on November 7, 2023, Pranowo admitted that he thinks Indonesia’s Free and Active foreign policy doctrine needs to be redefined to function more strategically and be more inclusive toward the needs of the Indonesian government. At the same time, he stated that defending Indonesia’s maritime sovereignty would be the key foreign policy of his administration (if elected) and that he thinks the US-China rivalry could bring economic benefits to Indonesia if it becomes an “alternative supply hub” which is consistent with the outgoing administration’s industrialization scheme.
However, Pranowo’s career as a politician hints at his favoring non-Western powers.
When he was governor of Central Java, he actively engaged with China. In 2015, for instance, he traveled to China to secure investments in Indonesia, which resulted in, among other things, China Hebei Bishi Steel Group, a Chinese steel company, investing US$2.54 billion in Central Java in 2018. He has also maintained good relations with Chinese officials, such as Xiao Qian, former Chinese Ambassador to Indonesia, and Zhou Zuyi, a CCP representative from the Fujian province. Pranowo also appears to have a positive impression of Russia, especially after he was gifted a Matryoshka doll in February 2019. Six months later, a Central Java delegation secured ten investment and trade cooperation agreements at the Indonesia-Russia Business Forum in Moscow. Russia also agreed to import Central Java products worth US$6 million for trade cooperation. More explicitly, in June 2023, Pranowo stated that Indonesia should follow the examples of China, Russia and India—and not depend on the West.
Considering all this information, Pranowo appears to be the opposite of Baswedan regarding the shift in foreign policy. Under a potential Pranowo presidency, Indonesia’s pragmatic diplomacy and close ties with China and Russia would continue or grow even stronger, much to the dismay of the United States and European Union.
Prabowo Subianto: Defense Diplomacy
The term “defense diplomacy” originated as a British concept to combine diplomatic and military tools so that they could stave off conflicts or oversee crises. Subianto, a former general in the Indonesian army, has frequently employed defence diplomacy since becoming minister of defense in 2019. Compared to the other two presidential candidates, Subianto is no stranger to presidential elections; the 2024 ballot will be his third rodeo. He also has more foreign policy experience than his rivals.
Subianto had to deal with the problems he inherited upon assuming the defence ministry post, such as rebuilding the Indonesian defense industry and managing the Ministry of Defense’s flimsy relationship with the Indonesian National Armed Forces. He quickly met and visited his counterparts from China, the UK, France, Turkey, and Japan. After Washington lifted a long-standing ban on visiting the country, he also visited the US. Discussions about arms purchases became a dominant theme in his defence diplomacy, using improvements in defence cooperation to deal with non-traditional security threats and for offsets and technology transfers. Indonesia has reasoned that it will be pressured to side exclusively with one group of military suppliers in diversifying its defence partners. In other words, Subianto’s defense diplomacy maneuvers have helped enhance Indonesia’s non-aligned stance. He has also synchronized his stance with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi.
With Widodo becoming president at a time when the US-China rivalry was heating up, his administration has had to tread carefully so as not to irk either superpower. This is true in Indonesia’s efforts to procure better military equipment, so Indonesia decided not to buy Russian Sukhoi in 2021 because it wanted to avoid being sanctioned by the US. Subianto dealt with this decision by looking for another option: France.
At first glance, Indonesia and France may appear disparate, yet a shared vision for a stable Indo-Pacific has forged a strategic alliance between the two nations. While Indonesia grapples with the complexities of the South China Sea, France, as the sole EU member with territories in the region, holds 93% of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Indo-Pacific. Seeking a source of high-end warfighting capabilities without raising alarms in Beijing or Washington, Jakarta found a fitting partner in Paris. Simultaneously, France pursued a strategic ally for its enduring Indo-Pacific ambitions, particularly following the fallout of the AUKUS deal in 2021, making Indonesia an ideal choice.
The defense ties between France and Indonesia reached a milestone with the signing of a Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) in 2021—the sole agreement between France and a Southeast Asian nation to date. This collaboration persisted in 2022, as Defense Minister Subianto emphasized France’s strategic importance to Indonesia. In a 2+2 meeting in July 2023, the two nations agreed to deepen cooperation in defense and technology transfer. Notably, in 2022, France secured an $8.1 billion deal with Indonesia to sell 42 Rafale jets. The first contract for 24 jets concluded in September 2022, followed by the finalization of the contract for the remaining 18 aircraft in August 2023.
Subianto extended his efforts beyond France to strengthen Indonesia’s defense ties with Europe. Despite relatively underdeveloped bilateral relations with Berlin, Germany became a focus. Subianto’s visit to Berlin in 2021 initiated discussions on cooperation in weaponry system development. Subsequently, in June 2023, Subianto and his German counterpart, Boris Pistorius, agreed to enhance defense cooperation.
Given Indonesia’s and Germany’s significance within ASEAN and the EU, respectively, improved relations between Jakarta and Berlin could positively impact ASEAN-EU ties. As the EU navigates responses to the US-China rivalry in the Indo-Pacific, strengthening relations with ASEAN, particularly with influential countries like Indonesia, becomes crucial. France’s initiative to enhance defense ties with Indonesia sets an example, potentially influencing other EU member states, including Germany.
However, a potential Subianto presidency doesn’t guarantee seamless EU-Indonesia relations. During a November 13, 2023 CSIS Discussion, Subianto affirmed his commitment to Indonesia’s Good Neighbor policy, maintaining impartiality in foreign policy application. While acknowledging his admiration for European strengths, philosophies, cultures, and achievements, he cautioned against overestimating Europe’s international importance for Indonesia, citing the historical exploitation of Indonesia’s natural wealth. Addressing these concerns becomes imperative under Subianto’s leadership to deepen the EU-Indonesia partnership.
Notably, criticisms over Subianto’s defense spending, particularly the postponed plan to acquire Qatari fighter jets, have surfaced. Both Pranowo and Baswedan, in a recent debate, expressed concerns, joined by critiques from Muhaimin Iskandar (Baswedan’s running mate) and Jusuf Kalla (Widodo’s former vice president and a prominent Baswedan endorser), questioning previous defense expenditures.
In the closing phase of President Widodo’s tenure, the impact of Indonesia’s free-and-active foreign policy is evident in events like hosting the biennial Multilateral Naval Exercise Komodo in June 2023, which brought together over 30 participants, including major players like the US, China, the UK, Australia, India, France, Japan, Pakistan, Brazil, and Russia. Regardless of the identity of Indonesia’s next president, one consistent aspect appears to be the likely continuation of Indonesia’s hedging strategy. The chosen leader will shape the future application of Indonesia’s foreign policy, be it Baswedan’s values-based perspective, Pranowo’s pragmatic approach, or Subianto’s defense diplomacy.
A December 2023 survey by Litbang Kompas suggests that Subianto is currently leading the presidential race. This could be attributed to Widodo’s endorsement, swaying many of his supporters toward Subianto’s camp. Another factor is Subianto’s running mate, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the current Mayor of Solo and Widodo’s son. According to the Populi Center, Raka’s potential appeal to voters under 40 and the promise of continuity for Widodo’s popular programs contribute to Subianto’s momentum.
As the Indonesian people exercise their democratic rights, other nations and interests must support them. Preparing for the potential diplomatic shifts that Indonesia’s foreign policy may undergo in 2024 is vital. Ultimately, international actors should remain adaptable and engage constructively, fostering partnerships that align with Indonesia’s evolving diplomatic style.