Indonesian President-elect Prabowo to visit China in first official post-polls foreign trip

Pizaro Gozali Idrus
Indonesian President-elect Prabowo to visit China in first official post-polls foreign trip Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto (left) greets Lt. Gen. Jing Jianfeng, China’s deputy chief of the Central Military Commission’s Joint Staff Department, on his arrival to attend the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus in Jakarta, Nov. 16, 2023.
Tatan Syuflana/Pool/via Reuters

Indonesian President-elect Prabowo Subianto will visit China next week at the invitation of President Xi Jinping for what will be his first official overseas visit since his election last month, the Chinese foreign ministry said on Friday.

By inviting Prabowo – currently Indonesia’s defense minister – Beijing is trying to gain an edge over Washington and strike first in wooing the future leader of Southeast Asia’s largest economy, analysts in Jakarta said. 

During Prabowo’s three-day visit starting Sunday, Xi will hold talks with the Indonesian president-elect on bilateral relations and issues of mutual interest, Lin Jian, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, told a regular daily press conference in Beijing on Friday.

“At the invitation of President Xi Jinping, Indonesia’s President-elect Prabowo Subianto will visit China from March 31 to April 2,” Lin said, according to a transcript posted on the ministry’s website.

“Mr. Prabowo’s visit to China will be his first overseas visit as president-elect. It fully demonstrates the robustness of China-Indonesia ties.”

The Indonesian Defense Ministry spokesman also confirmed Prabowo’s China visit, saying its aim was to strengthen bilateral relations and increase cooperation in the defense sector.

“This visit is part of the two countries’ ongoing efforts to strengthen strategic dialogue and cooperation, which is vital for regional security and stability,” Brig. Gen. Edwin Adrian Sumantha told BenarNews.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (second from right) walks with Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto (left), military chief Gen. Agus Subianto (second from left), and police chief Gen. Listyo Sigit after a meeting with high-ranking military and police officers at military headquarters in Jakarta, Feb. 28, 2024. [Bay Ismoyo/AFP]

Regional political observers see Prabowo’s upcoming visit to China mostly in the context of Sino-U.S. competition for influence in Southeast Asia, and Beijing’s investment of billions of dollars in Indonesia.

During the nearly decade-long presidency of outgoing leader Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Indonesia and China drew closer, many analysts said.

Al Azhar University Defense Analyst Raden Mokhamad Luthfi cited China’s big projects in Indonesia.

“One example is the Belt and Road Initiative project in the form of the Jakarta-Bandung Fast Train and the nickel downstreaming industry,” Raden told BenarNews.

He was referring to China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative project, the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed train, which began commercial operations in October 2023.

Nickel downstreaming refers to domestic processing of nickel ore, that is, to refine commodities at home to make exports more valuable. Chinese-linked companies dominate the nickel smelter industry in Indonesia.

Another reason for China’s invitation to Prabowo was that Beijing wanted to ensure that under Prabowo, Indonesia does not move closer to the United States and the West. 

“I suspect that China wants to ensure that Prabowo continues the foreign policy that Jokowi previously carried out,” he said.

China is invested in the Prabowo presidency because it wants its projects in Indonesia to stay on track, Raden said.

However, he doesn’t approve of China being Prabowo’s first stop as president-elect.

“Prabowo’s visit to China is too soon. It would have been better if he had waited until he was inaugurated first, then visited a foreign country,” Raden said.

“Visits to foreign countries by the newly inaugurated Indonesian president should first be to neighboring ASEAN member countries such as Malaysia, considering that Indonesia’s interests are much greater in ASEAN than in other countries,” Raden said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) talks with Indonesian President Joko “Joko” Widodo after the 29th APEC Economic Leaders Meeting during Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation 2022 in Bangkok, Nov. 18, 2022. [Rungroj Yongrit/Pool/via Reuters]

Prabowo has bucked tradition in another way as well with his overseas trip, according to Zulfikar Rahmat, director of the China-Indonesia Center of Economic and Law Studies (Celios).

This is the first time that a president-elect – one who has not been sworn in – has accepted a foreign government’s invitation to visit, Zulfikar told BenarNews. Prabowo is to be inaugurated as president in October.  

“There are two reasons for this. The first is, of course, that Prabowo sees China as a partner in the economic sector. We know that in recent years, China has been Indonesia’s number one trading partner,” he said. 

“Second, I see that Prabowo wants to continue Jokowi’s legacy, which is [being] close to China.” 

Like Jokowi, Prabowo puts Indonesia’s economy front and center, which brings it closer to China, Zulfikar said.   

Muradi, a politics and security analyst at University of Padjadjaran in Bandung, said Prabowo had an interest in seeing how China carries out its defense modernization, which is expected to be completed in 2027.

“[That’s] because China devotes almost 12% of GDP to their defense budget. So, China is one of the countries on the continent that has modern ships other than India,” Muradi, who goes by one name, told BenarNews. 

“Why did Prabowo go straight to China instead of ASEAN countries first? … Because Southeast Asian nations were not seen as very strategic by Prabowo. Instead, assume China is the current strategic power,” Muradi said. 

“Why didn’t Prabowo go to the U.S. first? Because until now, it is not clear who will win the November election – Biden or Trump. … Prabowo didn’t want to go to [meet] Biden, [if] Biden lost. Or to Trump, if it turned out Trump lost,” he said. 

Muradi predicted that after China, Prabowo’s next overseas stop would be in Russia, because its election, as it were, has concluded with Vladimir Putin being re-elected.

“Maybe Prabowo will only go to the U.S. in January or February 2025,” Muradi said.


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