Prabowo Subianto, Indonesia’s controversial defense chief, is undertaking his first visit in that role to the United States, where he is to hold bilateral talks with his counterpart at the Pentagon, Mark Esper.
The timing is odd. Rarely do such high-level visits to the U.S. take place in the final few weeks before American presidential polls, and Prabowo has come to Washington when a third wave of nationwide infections from a global pandemic has made most meetings virtual.
There are no pressing bilateral issues to justify a high-profile visit now, especially by a senior foreign government official like Prabowo, the former top leader of the Indonesian army’s special forces (Kopassus). It was linked to human rights abuses and atrocities in East Timor under his command decades ago – allegations which have trailed him into public office, but which he has denied.
The visit is also Prabowo’s first in 20 years, after he was previously denied entry into the United States in 2012 for reasons that remain unclear. The Trump administration has placed a lower priority on human rights and the rule of law.
Prabowo is the former son-in-law of the late Suharto, Indonesia’s longtime dictator. While in charge of Kopassus in then Indonesian-occupied East Timor, his troops were allegedly responsible for the massacre of many civilians and the horrific treatment of captured Fretelin rebels.
In 1998, during the Asian economic crisis and before Suharto fell from power that year, Prabowo appeared to be orchestrating riots and looting directed at ethnic Chinese in order to justify a military crackdown. Fears at the time were that he was going to give his father-in-law a “Supersemar”-style takeover, as Suharto did to his predecessor, Sukarno, in 1967.
Prabowo has never been held to account. And the lack of human rights accountability, especially in Kopassus, has resulted in bilateral U.S.-Indonesian defense relations not yet being fully restored despite attempts from both sides across multiple administrations.
After several years in self-imposed exile, Prabowo returned and founded a political vehicle, the Gerindra party. He contested the 2014 general election on an ultranationalist and neo-authoritarian platform, but narrowly lost to Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. He lost to Jokowi again in 2019, though by a larger margin.
Prabowo threatened to unleash his militant supporters during the 2019 voting count. Nonetheless, the president offered him the Ministry of Defense portfolio, either in the hopes of having a national unity government, or at the least to buy off his support for the election results.
What to expect
While there are a host of bilateral security issues that the United States and Indonesia should be talking about, none is pressing.
Yet one can expect that Prabowo, Esper and other officials will be discussing security concerns including the South China Sea and terrorism. They likely will also be talking about a potential sale of American-made fighter jets to Indonesia, while Washington competes with other rival powers including Russia to sell similar warplanes to Jakarta.
In the fight against terrorism Indonesia has done a relatively fantastic job in countering the threat since the 2002 Bali bombings. No country has done a better job at mitigating the threat of terrorism while at the same time consolidating its fragile and young democracy.
Indonesia controls three major sea lanes, and even though it denies having a territorial dispute with China, the reality is that China’s illegal Nine-Dash Line goes through Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Indonesia has played a leadership role in trilateral maritime policing with Malaysia in the Philippines that has reduced piracy and the flow of foreign terrorist fighters in and out of the southern Philippines. Indonesia has been slowly developing its own coast guard, although it remains woefully short on resources.
On its side, the U.S. government is clumsily trying to portray Indonesia as a key partner against China. This is woefully naive. We should not forget that Indonesians still have a deep-seated suspicion against America, including the rotational deployment of 2,000 U.S. Marines to nearby Darwin, Australia.
While U.S. and Indonesian security concerns converge around a host of issues, the two countries have very different policy prescriptions, risk tolerances, and bilateral relationships with China.
Indonesia remains fiercely committed to its foreign policy based on non-alignment and does not want to be pulled into a great power competition between the U.S. and China, even if Jakarta is concerned about perceived Chinese aggression around the Natuna Islands.
Indonesians often express concern about U.S. actions in the South China Sea that they fear are too provocative towards Beijing. At the same time, they do not have the capabilities to defend themselves or deter Chinese aggression in Indonesian territorial waters.
China is so important for the Indonesian economy that the Indonesians will go to great lengths to downplay Chinese aggression. China is Indonesia’s top destination for exports and is an increasingly important investor and provider of development assistance, even if Beijing’s One Belt, One Road projects have failed to live up to the hype.
Moreover, China holds a path forward from the COVID-19 crisis in the archipelago. China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. now is conducting phase 3 trials of its vaccine, and has pledged joint production with Indonesia.
As of Oct. 15, the most populous country in Southeast Asia had officially recorded nearly 350,000 cases of the novel coronavirus disease and more than 12,000 deaths from it.
Big powers vie for arms deals
The U.S. government should also not forget that Prabowo’s traveled to Beijing some 11 months ago to meet his counterpart there.
The potential for arms sales is always bandied about. But any major purchase seems relatively unlikely at this juncture. American-made weapon systems are really too expensive for Indonesia, especially in a COVID-induced recession.
Indonesia also wants to lower the unit costs by negotiating licensing for indigenous production, and it’s hard to see U.S. defense contractors entering into joint production with their Indonesian counterparts.
The Indonesians have said that they want to discuss a pathway to procuring the F-35. The model of this fighter jet, depending on the variant, costs between U.S. $94 million and $122 million. While Indonesia may still try to purchase used F-16 fighter jets, it is far more likely that they will go back to the Russians, despite the potential for sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.
A Mig-31, by comparison, costs $33 million, and the Russians have approved barter deals in the past. The U.S. has already given Indonesia a CAATSA exemption.
Moreover, many within the Indonesian military resist the prospect of acquiring U.S.-made arms, simply because previous American sanctions over human rights led to a shortage of spare parts, rendering them useless. The U.S. is viewed as an unreliable partner, and since the early-2000s, Indonesia has striven to diversify its arms suppliers.
That has impacted Indonesian defense in other ways. Indonesian defense procurement is unfocused and largely divorced from a strategic planning process. They buy various systems, based on what they can get cheaply and quickly. But that is very disadvantageous, given that today’s weapon systems are interoperable and connected to the internet.
All things considered, there is no compelling justification for Prabowo’s visit to the U.S. at this time. Prabowo is likely gearing up for a third electoral run in 2024, and his trip to the United States will burnish his credentials as a statesman but it will also help whitewash his alleged ties to human rights abuses from long ago.
We tend to forget that what truly sets the United States apart from autocracies like China is our commitment to human rights and the rule of law.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College and Georgetown University in Washington and author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.