Two visits, different perspectives: Prabowo’s landmark trips abroad as Indonesia president-elect raise eyebrows

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SINGAPORE: No Indonesian president-elect is known to have formally visited any foreign country before assuming office at Merdeka Palace. That is, till now.

Mr Prabowo Subianto's visits to China and Japan before his likely October inauguration have garnered extensive coverage. Chinese media in particular have hyped up Mr Prabowo’s Beijing check-in, focusing on the fact that Indonesia’s next leader decided to visit China first.

While analysts are cautioning against reading too much into the visits, some say the developments - especially the choice of destination - provide further hints into the likely direction and conduct of Indonesia’s foreign policy under Mr Prabowo’s charge. 

At the same time, they believe that even as Indonesia navigates diplomacy with major powers, engagement with Southeast Asian states will also remain firmly on the radar under a Prabowo presidency, mirroring the stances taken by past Indonesian leaders.

“I expect the first official visit after Mr Prabowo takes office would be to neighbouring ASEAN countries,” said Mr Radityo Dharmaputra, a lecturer at the Department of International Relations in Surabaya’s Airlangga University.

BREAKING WITH TRADITION

China’s foreign ministry announced last week that Mr Prabowo would be visiting China from Mar 31 at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, less than two months after winning the race to lead Southeast Asia’s biggest economy. 

The three-day visit saw Mr Prabowo meeting with Mr Xi in Beijing, where they reaffirmed bilateral ties and pledged support for closer relations. Mr Prabowo also met Chinese Premier Li Qiang.

Midway through Mr Prabowo’s China stop, Japan announced that the former general would be swinging by thereafter for two days from Apr 2. While there, Mr Prabowo met with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

“Under the comprehensive strategic partnership, as excellent partners, we would like to advance our bilateral relationship and cooperation in regional and international affairs,” said Mr Kishida after their Wednesday meeting as reported by Nikkei Asia.

The visits have generated plenty of media buzz, with outlets highlighting how it is Mr Prabowo’s first foreign tour since being elected president. Some also pointed out the novelty of an Indonesian president-elect making formal overseas visits.

No Indonesian president-elect has ever done so. Cases in point - outgoing president Joko Widodo; likewise for his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who won Indonesia’s first direct presidential election in 2004.

Still, analysts CNA spoke to have cautioned about reading too much into the developments.

Ms Christine Susanna Tjhin, co-founder and director of Gentala Institute, explained that in Indonesia, there is no legal instrument that regulates the authority and overseas visits of the president-elect. 

She believes the meeting with Mr Xi was a diplomatic courtesy from top Chinese leadership to Mr Prabowo, who was already scheduled to visit Beijing.

“The visit to China has actually been on the agenda of (Indonesia’s) Ministry of Defence since the end of 2023 or early 2024,” she added.

“The appointment of key ministerial positions and the actual official state visits after his inauguration will be more indicative of Mr Prabowo’s foreign policy direction.”

Expressing similar sentiments, Mr Radityo said the China visit might have been planned even before the presidential victory.

“Considering Indonesia is an important player in the region, I would say this is a good strategy from China to show that Mr Prabowo and Indonesia are important partners.”

TWO VISITS, DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES

The trip to China by Mr Prabowo, who is also Indonesia’s current defence minister, was framed differently by China and Indonesia.

China’s foreign ministry referred to the 72-year-old as “president-elect of Indonesia and Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) general chairman” when announcing his visit. A spokesperson also underscored that China would be the first country visited by Mr Prabowo after being elected president.

President Xi himself brought up this point during their meeting. “You have chosen China as the destination of your first post-election visit, and made a special trip to China during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan,” he told Mr Prabowo.

In comparison, Indonesia’s defence ministry referred to Mr Prabowo as “Minister of Defence” in a press release describing his meeting with President Xi. The spokesperson of Mr Prabowo’s presidential campaign also said he was visiting China as defence minister to strengthen bilateral cooperation, particularly on defence affairs.

Analysts say the focus by China on Mr Prabowo being Indonesia’s next leader is deliberate, especially as it vies with the United States for regional influence.

“It is China’s way of posturing, to show that they move faster than the US in dealing with (Indonesia’s) next president,” said international law professor Hikmahanto Juwana at the University of Indonesia.

“China’s move is to ensure the friendly diplomatic relationship and economic partnership under the current administration would be continued under the new administration. Hence, we saw a slightly ‘special treatment’ by Mr Xi towards Mr Prabowo in this visit,” Prof Juwana added.

Two-way trade between China and Indonesia was about US$150 billion in 2022, triple the tally back in 2013. Chinese investment in Indonesia came in at US$8.2 billion in 2022 as well, placing China as the country’s second-largest investor after Singapore.

Infrastructure projects have been a key focus of Chinese investments - for example, the China-backed Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway which began commercial operations in October last year.

Chinese investments have also flowed heavily into nickel smelters. While bolstering the local industry and creating jobs, it has also provided Chinese firms reliable access to the metal, which is a key component in electric vehicle batteries. China is the world’s largest electric vehicle market.

China has long signalled how specifically significant Indonesia is, most prominently from President Xi’s speech at the Indonesian Parliament announcing the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road in 2013, Ms Tjhin from Gentala Institute explained.

Still, she cautioned that Indonesia needs to be realistic. While China is Indonesia’s largest trading partner and second-largest for foreign direct investments, Indonesia is only ranked 16 on the list of China’s export destinations (about 2 per cent of total trade) and ranked 12 as an import partner (about 3 per cent of total trade) based on 2022 global trade data.

Against this backdrop, Ms Tjhin asserted that despite the positive prose by Beijing, Indonesia must be aware of the current reality and keep on improving the domestic situation while leveraging its strategic advantages in the region.

Economic considerations aside, Mr Radityo from Airlangga University believes China wants to build relations as soon as possible with Mr Prabowo. “This is not only about China’s interests in terms of economic policies and investments but also as a possible geopolitical ally in some issues regarding the world order.”

As for Mr Prabowo’s trip to Japan, coverage was relatively subdued compared to his China visit. Indonesian media had limited reports while Japanese news outlets covered it straight, citing the Apr 1 announcement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi.

Indonesia "is a comprehensive strategic partner (of Japan) that shares fundamental principles and values, and has historical ties (with Japan) in a wide range of fields such as politics, economy and culture," Mr Hayashi said as reported by Jiji Press.

ALIGNED ON BEING NON-ALIGNED?

Even as observers stress that it’s early days, they say Mr Prabowo’s trips to China and Japan suggest that he will likely maintain Indonesia’s long-standing non-aligned foreign policy.

Indonesia’s “independent and active” foreign policy is one that does not align with the superpowers nor does it bind the country to any military pact, stated Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi in November last year in an annual foreign policy publication by the Körber Foundation.

“It places great emphasis on an active role and engagement with all countries, guided by strategic autonomy and firm adherence to international law,” she added.

Mr Radityo pointed out that Mr Prabowo’s visit to Japan immediately after China is a “clever way” for him to show that Indonesia will remain in the middle as before, as Japan is considered a traditional ally of the US.

Ms Tjhin - a former China Study Group convenor at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Indonesia - told CNA the geographical proximity of both China and Japan’s visit is consistent with Mr Prabowo’s non-aligned messages.

Similarly, Dr Johanes Herlijanto, co-founder and chairman of Indonesian Sinology Forum, said China and Japan represent two different geopolitical camps. “His new administration will not want to be seen as leaning towards China. Mr Prabowo wants to continue the current policy," he added.

And even as Indonesia balances its relations with major powers, analysts believe engagement with Southeast Asian countries will remain front and centre for Jakarta.

Past Indonesian leaders have made no bones of the importance placed on relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states. It has been a tradition since Mr Suharto’s presidency to visit neighbouring ASEAN countries for their first bilateral meeting.

Former president Abdurrahman Wahid or Gus Dur, who was known for his frequent international trips almost every month, visited several ASEAN nations first before departing further afield to countries like the US and Japan.

His successor Ms Megawati Soekarnoputri - Indonesia’s first female president - launched a whirlwind regional tour a month after replacing Mr Wahid, visiting all ASEAN countries across eight days.

While not on the same scale, her successor Mr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and current president Joko Widodo also made it a point to visit ASEAN countries for their first bilateral outing - in their cases, it was Malaysia.

Analysts CNA spoke to firmly believe this trend of having a Southeast Asian nation as the first bilateral port of call will be maintained by Mr Prabowo, and that ASEAN centrality will continue as the cornerstone of Indonesia’s foreign policy.

“Mr Prabowo has mentioned how ASEAN is key to regional security and stability - not just in terms of military capacity, but also for its regional economic sector,” said Ms Tjhin.

Additional reporting by Lakeisha Leo