The Latest on Southeast Asia: April 11, 2024

In the past week, Indonesian president-elect Prabowo Subianto embarked on a series of official visits throughout Asia. At the invitation of Chinese president Xi Jinping, Prabowo arrived in China for a three-day visit on March 31. This was his first international trip since the Indonesian General Elections Commission officially verified his victory in the February national elections.

Prabowo will not assume the presidency until October; for now, he remains the outgoing administration’s defense minister. After his trip to China, Prabowo visited Japan on April 3, meeting with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Minoru Kihara. Lastly, Prabowo visited Malaysia, where he met with Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on April 4. 

Throughout his three-day trip to China, Prabowo emphasized the importance of China-Indonesia ties and reiterated President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s “policy of friendship with China.” Prabowo said he hopes to improve defense cooperation with China and build upon the billions of dollars in foreign direct investment that China has put toward Indonesian infrastructure projects in recent years. 

The South China Sea will remain a complicated issue for Indonesia. Though President Xi expressed China’s willingness to deepen maritime cooperation with Indonesia, it is unclear how Prabowo will balance the relationship with China in light of ongoing tensions, including over Indonesian drilling in waters claimed by Beijing.

During his visit to Japan, Prabowo and Prime Minister Kishida signaled their intent to grow the Indonesia-Japan bilateral relationship through their comprehensive strategic partnership, hoping to make strides in defense, manufacturing, and industrial cooperation. Generally described by analysts as a counterweight to his China visit, Prabowo’s shoring up of defense ties with Japan while continuing to encourage Japanese investment in Indonesian development projects is intended to ensure Indonesia’s economic and geopolitical security. 

On his way back to Indonesia, Prabowo paid a courtesy call to Prime Minister Anwar in Malaysia. Prabowo stressed the importance of boosting Indonesia-Malaysia ties and of enhancing inter-ASEAN cooperation. Prabowo also met with the Malaysian defense minister, Mohamed Khaled Nordin. 

Though Prabowo maintains that his administration will serve as a continuation of many of President Jokowi’s policies, he may forge his own path in foreign affairs. Compared to Jokowi, Prabowo possesses a more internationalist outlook that may create a more active, and perhaps more unpredictable, foreign policy. In this string of international visits, Prabowo aims to project the image of a broadly engaged, non-aligned Indonesia, eager to make partnerships that cut across the Washington/Beijing dichotomy. It remains in Indonesia’s economic and geopolitical interest to hedge between China and the United States and its allies. As such, Prabowo will inherit a delicate balancing act. 

Japhet Quitzon is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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