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What a Prabowo win signals for US-Indonesia relations

What a Prabowo win signals for US-Indonesia relations

The former military general will likely pursue continuity — with potential for some East-West warming

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

(JAKARTA, INDONESIA) — Soon after voting ended in the world’s fourth-largest country and third-largest democracy, Prabowo Subianto is claiming a knock-out blow winning more than half the vote and the necessary number of provinces to eliminate both his challengers.

According to unofficial tallies, which have been historically accurate, Prabowo has garnered 58% of the vote in today's contest. The official count will not be announced until mid-March and his opponents have yet to concede defeat.

Nevertheless, highly popular incumbent president Joko Widodo (Jokowi)’s backing for the former special forces commander, and active undermining of his own party’s candidate Ganjar Pranowo, is a big reason for the ostensibly lopsided result. But the famously temperamental Prabowo’s clever rebranding as a cute and cuddly grandpa seems to have helped quite a bit, too.

Arriving in Jakarta just as the three-day “quiet period” was beginning spared me all the raucousness of the election campaigning. But the billboards of the three candidates — Anies Baswedan, Ganjar Pranowo, and Prabowo — were prominently plastered across the city. The few everyday folk I spoke to seemed to favor the former general. A young hotel housekeeper told me she voted for Prabowo (as did almost all her friends and family) as he was “a strong leader, and honest.” Reports here speak of the youth vote as being a big factor in the result.

Much of the U.S. commentary has pointed out that Prabowo was once banned from entering the U.S. for his links to a military unit accused of human rights atrocities. To that the feisty general might say: get over it. After all, the United States was forced to lift the ban on his entry after Jokowi — after beating Prabowo in a bitterly-fought election in 2019 — invited him to become his defense minister.

Now that Prabowo is likely to become president, such musings are chiefly academic. While my interlocutors in town seemed worried about democratic backsliding in the country (and this has been apparently underway for a couple of years), relatively few voters appear swayed by this concern. And in an increasingly multipolar world, Washington is less able to influence how other countries choose their leaders, and tell them how they should govern.

For his part, as president Jokowi has focused relentlessly on economic growth and domestic issues, though he also skillfully steered Indonesia’s G20 presidency in the turbulent wake of the Ukraine war. Under him Indonesia has not only prospered, but also put into place a tough industrial policy, including limiting or banning the export of certain valuable natural resources, such as nickel. This encourages these resources to be processed in-country, which helps grow and sustain economically valuable industries that require these resources, such as electric vehicle parts, thereby diversifying and strengthening the Indonesian economy.

The European Union has responded by taking him to the WTO, and the United States has not been exactly enthusiastic on these “downstreaming” policies. But China has played ball, building ore-processing plants in the country. Beijing has also built shiny new infrastructure, most prominently a new “Whoosh” bullet train from Jakarta to Bandung.

Meanwhile, Jakarta has not expressly taken sides in the U..S-China tussle. This is hardly surprising. Non-alignment (or bebas dan aktif — free and active — as the Indonesians call it in Bahasa) is a core Indonesian grand strategy principle. Indonesia was a foundational contributor to the idea of non-alignment in the Global South, with the famous 1955 Bandung conference being held there.

Even under the authoritarian leader Suharto, who tilted toward the United States, Indonesia maintained strong relations with arch-communist Vietnam. Though China was shunned by Suharto — and the Chinese-Indonesian minority treated poorly — it all seems in the rear-view mirror in today’s Indonesia. China is Indonesia’s biggest trade partner and among its biggest investors. Hoardings commemorating the Chinese new year are visible in parts of the city and the community is much better integrated than in the past.

Furthermore, when it comes to Russia, Indonesian social media has been rife with sympathy with Moscow on the Ukraine war.

What will Prabowo’s foreign policy be like? His past record indicates that the ex-general is much more a strong-willed, if volatile, pragmatist than an ideologue. Today, this means a continuation of Jokowi’s policy record of economic growth and the development of domestic industry and infrastructure. Thus business-friendly relations with Beijing, as also attempts to attract more American investment and trade, will continue.

Prabowo is also far more exposed in his youth to the world than was Jokowi when he was sworn in. The former general has lived in Europe and Singapore and was trained by the U.S. military. Which means that Indonesia under him could be somewhat more vocal on regional and international issues than it has been. Recall Prabowo’s bold play on a Ukraine peace plan at the United Nations last year.

Nevertheless, unless Washington makes a big deal of past human rights issues (unlikely), there are opportunities for incremental strengthening of ties. Military exercises between the two have been on an upswing lately. Indonesia has also softened its earlier opposition to AUKUS and refrained from joining BRICS, partly keeping relations with Washington in mind.

Trade relations are something to watch however, with Washington’s new focus on imposing labor standards on its major trading partners. This is not always welcome in Global South capitals which see lower labor costs as a comparative advantage. Unlike the United States these days, Indonesia is also very comfortable with trade integration. It was the most important ASEAN member leading the RCEP process and continues to lead in shaping the implementation of the world’s largest trade agreement.

Should there be a Republican in the White House next year, issues such as trade deficits could loom large. Indonesia also seeks a critical minerals agreement with the United States and hopes to benefit from the Inflation Reduction Act’s clean energy subsidies, but it will be a long haul to get there.

As long as Washington understands that Indonesia is committed to a non-aligned rise, there is much scope to deepen ties. Indonesians see their relations with other major powers as being defined on their own merits and not as a byproduct of any other relationship. That ought to be a good basis for moving forward.

Prabowo Subianto, running for president, in Bandung, Indonesia. (Shutterstock/Dhodi Syailendra)

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