Prabowo’s foreign policy and what it may mean for Australia
12 Feb 2024|

On 14 February, over 200 million Indonesians will vote in the world’s largest direct presidential elections. Three candidates—former Jakarta governor Anies Basewdan, Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, and former Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo—are vying for the presidency. And while the process might include a second round of elections in June, it is almost certain that the race will be won by Prabowo, a controversial candidate once banned from entering the US and Australia for human rights abuses.

While not all Indonesian presidents are predominantly interested in foreign policy, they play an outsized role in helping shape its form. So, what kind of foreign policy would a potential President Prabowo adopt?

At this stage, major changes seem unlikely. Aligning himself with former rival and current Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi), Prabowo signals himself as a force of continuity.

His campaign manifesto commits to continuing the Jokowi administration’s vision of transforming Indonesia into an advanced economy by 2045, the centennial of the nation’s independence. In a world increasingly characterised by uncertainty, the manifesto highlights that this goal can only be achieved if Indonesia is powerful and maintains a ‘well-managed defence and security system that can protect the nation and ensure peace in its own security.’

While this means there needs to be more investment in defence, it also means that Indonesia needs to adopt a pragmatic attitude in the face of global strategic competition. Prabowo has said he wants Indonesia to remain committed to non-alignment and to have ‘great relationships with everybody.

He has reaffirmed the mantra that Indonesia should commit to ASEAN centrality and be active in global affairs.

He is also keen to avoid getting entangled in Sino-American rivalry and believes Indonesia must be able to benefit from the US and China pragmatically.

Prabowo’s perceptions of the US and China have been subject to many assessments. He is known to have some affinity for the West, favouring closer defence ties with the US and Australia. And despite having opportunistically criticised the Jokowi administration’s courting of Chinese capital in the past, he sees China as a country worthy of emulation. He has called China a ‘great civilisation’ that has been a leader in Asia for many thousands of years. He has publicly admired China’s rapid economic growth and had once claimed that he would become ‘Indonesia’s Deng Xiaoping’. While Prabowo is also critical of China’s adventurism in the South China Sea, he is equally cautious that any action should not disrupt the flow of Chinese capital, particularly to key industries like nickel.

More continuity in the substance of Indonesian foreign policy should be expected. It is, after all, a product of an elite consensus that aims to satisfy the interests of the many groups that ultimately shape Indonesia’s domestic and foreign relations. Despite his tough man aura, Prabowo will still need to satisfy the multiple interest groups that make up the governance of his country’s democratic system, including the oligarchs whose business interests need to be preserved, senior military officials whose procurement desires must be secured, and senior diplomats whose unbridled commitment to non-alignment need to be respected. All these competing interests mean Prabowo (or any other president) will need to ensure that there is room for pragmatism and compromise.

At the same time, whoever replaces Jokowi will lead a country of 280 million people with as many aspirations and expectations as there are needs. They’ll lead a government facing the same challenges and demands that Jokowi has faced, from needing to meet Indonesia’s infrastructural deficit to providing the development needs of millions of Indonesians and adapting to the effects of climate change. They will also need to ensure continued access to Indonesian mining and critical minerals exports at a time when Sino-American rivalry has spilled into the economic and tech domains.

What will make a Prabowo foreign policy unique may come less from his understanding of the world and more from his personality and interests. He is known to be impatient, prone to anger, and deeply emotional. He is also unpredictable—often disregarding the counsel of his advisers. This can impact foreign policy as well. Despite being surrounded by a praetorian guard of former defence and military officials, Prabowo is largely his own foreign policy and defence adviser.

During a speech at the 2023 Shangri-La Dialogue, he controversially called on Russia and Ukraine to pave the road towards peace by pulling back 15km from each party’s forward positions to establish a demilitarised zone. They should, he said, then organise a referendum to let people living in ‘disputed’ areas determine whether they wanted to be part of Ukraine or Russia.

This commentary drew anger from many. When quizzed in parliament, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi insisted that Indonesia had not changed its Ukraine policy and that it should instead question Prabowo directly because it was his proposal. Indeed, Prabowo’s proposal was a last-minute addition to his speech that sought no advice from the foreign ministry or key foreign policy experts he’d consulted before the speech.

These kinds of impromptu policy announcements may emerge more often under a Prabowo presidency, which could disempower the foreign ministry further. The ministry may find that it is frequently reacting to the president’s statements rather than dedicating its resources to addressing the many major strategic and diplomatic problems the country faces. Fundamentally, the next foreign minister must ensure congruence between whatever they think is the policy preference and whatever an unpredictable Prabowo may think the policy preference may be.

So, what should Australia expect?

Australia should expect an Indonesian government that continues to be interested in a cooperative relationship. Despite having once been banned from entering Australian airspace, Prabowo has overseen a qualitative improvement in the defence relationship between the two countries. He has offered a more favourable view of AUKUS and suggests that minilaterals do have a place within the Indo-Pacific system. During a speech at CSIS Indonesia last year, he also asserted that Indonesia’s foreign policy will be driven by a ’good neighbour’ policy. The use of the term—reminiscent of China’s own foreign policy while lacking the same context—is interesting. It implies that Indonesia will continue to engage with Australia and the rest of the region as it has been doing.

At the same time, be prepared for occasional moments of turbulence. This can come from sudden policy divergences between the president and the foreign minister, as well as from his own emotional exploitation of nationalist issues back home. Given Prabowo’s authoritarian streak, there may be moments when certain issues in Indonesia flare up, such as an Australian response to human rights abuses. These will be deeply sensitive moments where officials on both sides need to navigate not only the sensitivities of public opinion (which is not always positive) but also work towards ensuring that the bilateral relationship doesn’t get too entangled in the emotional sentiments of domestic politics.

Ultimately, while much of the substance of Indonesia’s foreign policy under a potential President Prabowo will remain the same, its delivery could be complicated by the sudden shifts in ideas and moods of its president.