Think-tank: Indonesia’s next president must navigate complicated ties with China

Pizaro Gozali Idrus
Think-tank: Indonesia’s next president must navigate complicated ties with China Indonesian President Joko Widodo (center left) and his wife Iriana disembark from their plane upon arrival at Chengdu Tianfu International Airport in Chengdu, China, July 27, 2023.
[Laily Rachev/Indonesian Presidential Palace via AP]

Indonesia’s relationship with China will be a key issue in the 2024 presidential election, with two of the three candidates appearing to have a pro-Beijing tilt, a new policy brief says.

The future leader will have to navigate tricky terrain because China is Indonesia’s top foreign source of investment while also viewed as a threat to the territorial sovereignty of Southeast Asia’s largest country. 

The three Indonesian presidential hopefuls are vying to succeed Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who has forged a close relationship with Beijing, Jakarta think-tank CELIOS said in its brief released on Friday.

Among the contenders, former Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan seems to be the only one skeptical of China, which is vying with its number one rival, United States, for influence in Southeast Asia. 

Candidate Ganjar Pranowo, who is from Jokowi’s party and is governor of Central Java province, is expected to continue his predecessor’s policy, according to CELIOS. 

And on the face of it, it appears that the third contender, Prabowo Subianto, the defense minister who is a former army general, may also continue Jokowi’s policy, CELIOS said. For instance, Prabowo, as defense chief, sought to boost military cooperation with Beijing. 

But the think-tank added a caveat: All of Prabowo’s actions were really those of the Jokowi administration, so they ought to be viewed in that light, and if elected president, it is possible Prabowo may change direction.

Then-Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan poses with residents along a street in Jakarta, Nov. 1, 2020. [Goh Chai Hin/AFP file photo]

CELIOS said the candidate who would most likely “transform” the current government’s foreign policy if he wins is Anies. 

Anies appears more interested in building relations with the United States and Western countries, said he think-tank’s researcher, Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat.

“During his tenure as a Governor of Jakarta, Anies has visited several European countries to solicit cooperation, starting from the construction of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) to collaborative smart city,” Zulfikar said during a webinar hosted by CELIOS in Jakarta last week.

He noted that despite the Jokowi government leaning towards China, Anies has regularly been engaging with the West – he visited Britain, Germany, France, and Luxembourg in 2022.

According to CELIOS, Anies may feel closer to the West because he lived and studied in the U.S. for many years.

“Anies ostensibly understands that with the steady anti-China sentiment in society, Indonesian politicians who have close ties with the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) generally experience defeat at the polls,” the policy brief said.

“It could be that not being labelled as a ‘Chinese lackey’ can be a surefire way to gain public sympathy.”

CELIO was referring to China’s massive infrastructure projects in Indonesia, which are often dogged by controversies to do with labor conditions, environmental impact and the possibility of drawing Indonesia into a debt-trap.

“Anies wants to change the way Indonesian people view the government, which has been criticized by the public for being overly pro-China,” Zulfiqar said.

Ganjar Pranowo, the Central Java governor who is the candidate of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) in the 2024 presidential election, delivers a speech during the PDIP meeting at Batu Tulis palace in Bogor, Indonesia, April 21, 2023. [Jafar Umar Zaman/Handout via Reuters]

By contrast, Ganjar has publicly proclaimed he would carry on with Jokowi’s policies if elected, CELIOS researcher Zulfikar said.

Jokowi and Ganjar’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have a history of warm ties. 

“Jokowi himself has a close relationship with China, as witnessed by the focus of Indonesia’s foreign policy during his leadership which was more inclined towards China, especially in development and infrastructure sectors,” Zulfikar said during a webinar hosted by CELIOS in Jakarta on Friday.

Jokowi’s infrastructure focus was in line with China’s worldwide infrastructure-building program, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the think-tank said.

“Geopolitically, Indonesia has a strategic geographical advantage and a large market share to

absorb and realize China's interests in implementing the Belt and Road Initiative. … The growing ties between the two countries have continued to develop throughout Jokowi's second term,” the policy brief said.

Besides, Ganjar, as Central Java governor, has had frequent contact with China and “frequently praises China,” Zulfikar said.

“Central Java Province has signed various cooperative programs with China in the scope of regional partnerships.”

For instance, dozens of Chinese investors in the wood and furniture sectors invested nearly U.S. $2 billion in the Central Java economy in 2019.

In May 2023, Ganjar also signed an investment deal with the Chinese for the construction of an energy factory at Batang Industrial Estate, which is expected to create jobs for at least 10,000 local workers, CELIOS said.

Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto speaks during a news conference in Jakarta, Nov. 21, 2022. [Willy Kurniawan/Pool/Reuters file photo]

As for incumbent Defense Minister Prabowo, CELIOS said he “is part of a system in which the current government's foreign policy is closely aligned with China's interests.”

While Prabowo stressed to his Chinese counterpart in September 2022 – during a time of escalation of tensions in the disputed South China Sea – that Jakarta would continue to uphold its free and active foreign policy, most of his other meetings with Chinese officials have been about defense cooperation, the think tank said.

“The frequency of Prabowo's interactions with China so far is noteworthy as an indicator of the potential direction of Indonesia's foreign policy in the future, if he is elected president,” the policy brief said.

“However, it should be stressed that the relationship that exists is inseparable from the fact that many of these engagements were carried out as part of his official position as minister in Jokowi's cabinet.”

‘President-elect must be firm’ on South China Sea

The think-tank noted that in recent years, the China Coast Guard and Chinese ships have been very active in illegally patrolling around Indonesia's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) – “to the point of entering the North Natuna waters.”

“Nevertheless, the Indonesian navy did not prevent these vessels from entering and only monitored from a distance of less than a mile,” the policy brief said.

“The president-elect must be firm and consistent in dealing with China's aggressiveness in the South China Sea.”

Indonesia does not have any territorial disputes with China, but it has repeatedly lodged protests against Chinese fishing boats and coast guard vessels entering its EEZ near the Natuna Islands.

Yeta Purnama, another analyst at CELIOS, said the next president also needed to renegotiate projects that could potentially lead Indonesia into a debt trap, including the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail project.

“The most concerning issue is the miscalculation that leads to increases in construction costs which could potentially become a debt trap,” Yeta said during the webinar.

The next Indonesian president needed to uphold Jakarta’s free and active foreign policy and maintain a certain distance from China, said Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar, a political scientist at the University of Queensland in Australia.

“If Indonesia gets too close to China, we will fail to maintain our position in the battle of superpower countries,” he said at the webinar.

“It will not have a good impact in the long term.”


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