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Ahead of Indonesian Elections, China-Friendly Defense Minister in the Lead

What is going on?

As President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s second presidential term comes to end, Indonesia is gearing up for a presidential election scheduled for February 2024. According to the latest poll by Indikator Politik, the incumbent defense minister Prabowo Subianto is leading in the three-way race with 33.6 percent of declared support. Subianto, who lost to Jokowi in the 2014 and 2019, has abandoned his anti-China sentiment and instead embraced closer defense cooperation with the People’s Republic of China amid growing tensions and U.S.-China competition in the Indo-Pacific region. Sitting at the heart of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Indonesia has the ability to tilt the strategic balance in the region, which renders the upcoming elections consequential beyond the nation’s borders.


What is the broader picture?

The three main candidates in the Indonesian presidential race include Prabowo Subianto, Ganjar Pranowo, and Anies Baswedan. Prabowo is supported by the Great Indonesia Awakening Coalition, which includes the right-wing populist Gerindra Party and the liberal Islamic National Awakening Party (PKB). The second candidate, currently serving as Governor of Central Java (one of the country’s most populous provinces), enjoys the support of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle. An academic and politician, Anies is an independent candidate with the backing of the secular coalition party Nasdem and the conservative Islamic Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) in the opposition. He is the incumbent Governor of Jakarta – a position frequently viewed as a springboard to presidency in Indonesia.

In the ongoing electoral contest, Prabowo seeks to shed his reputation as a military strongman and instead cultivates a more casual image, likely to appeal to millennial and Gen Z voters. A controversial former general and special forces’ commander accused of human rights abuses, Prabowo took to social media to capitalize on his newfound legitimacy built during his tenure as the defense minister and create a personal brand which is palatable to young audiences. According to Jakarta’s Center for Strategic and International Studies youth voting survey, Indonesians aged between the minimum voting age of 17 to 39 will be the dominant voting bloc commanding nearly 60% of votes in the 2024 elections. As the latest surveys demonstrate Prabowo’s strong support among youth voters, the prospect of his electoral victory remains highly plausible.


Why does it matter?

During his tenure as the defense minister in President Jokowi’s administration, Prabowo upheld cordial relations with his Chinese counterparts. During a November 2022 meeting in Xi’an, Prabowo and Chinese state councilor and defense minister Wei Fenghe (魏鳳和) agreed to resume the joint military training and exercises paused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In June 2023, Prabowo and the incumbent Chinese defense minister Li Shangfu (李尚福) announced the formation of the 2+2 Indonesia-China forum.

Indonesia formally continues to shape its foreign relations according to the doctrine of non-alignment or bebas dan aktif (free and active). As its territories are not claimed by the PRC within its nine-dash line, Jakarta frequently seeks to position itself as a neutral party in a geopolitically critical neighborhood. And while Prabowo actively engaged with his Chinese counterparts, he also demonstrated his commitment to the U.S.-Indonesia Strategic Partnership and continued to engage his country in joint exercises with the U.S.

At the same time, the defense minister’s and presidential hopeful’s strategy of dual engagement may disproportionately benefit Beijing. The People’s Republic of China remains an important source of capital for infrastructural investments, which have been the cornerstone of Jokowi’s presidency. Additionally, Chinese companies such Tsingshan (青山) dominate Indonesia’s extractive sector – a crucial challenge amid mounting global competition for critical raw materials such as nickel. Under Prabowo, the Indonesian defense ministry fails to consider these growing dependencies as a potential national security risk for Jakarta. Consequently, if elected, Prabowo is likely to continue his dovish approach towards Beijing, therefore shifting the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific in China’s favor.