Prabowo’s Indonesia and the Great Powers

The resounding victory of Prabowo Subianto in the Indonesian presidential election has sparked the usual question: How will the rest of the world, particularly the great powers, respond to his landslide win? In it, he (and his running mate) secured 58% of the vote in a three-cornered contest, making a run-off unnecessary. Prabowo, with his controversial military past, comes vindicated by voters to the Indonesian throne. How will other political kingdoms treat him?

At one level, this is an irrelevant question. Indonesia was a key Asian player before Prabowo’s ascendancy, and it will stay that way during his term of office. Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago, was and is Southeast Asia’s largest country and economy, and home to the largest number of Muslims on earth. Prabowo’s presidency does not change any of those facts materially. Then why should China, the US, Japan, India, Russia and the EU exercise themselves unduly over the Prabowean turn in Indonesian affairs?

Indeed, great powers do not alter the geography of their global interests because of the emergence of a new national player, let alone a new leader (Prabowo) in an old player (Indonesia). What great powers try to do is to fit emergent nations and their leaders into a grid of existing hegemonic relations that uphold the interests of the great powers ultimately. That will be true of China’s and America’s relations with Indonesia as well.

The important question, however, is how far Indonesia would go along with predestined roles for it. Here, Prabowo’s assertive nationalism will chalk out an international way for his country.


Following Prabowo’s victory, Chinese Ambassador to Indonesia Lu Kang visited him at his residence in Kertanegara Street, South Jakarta, to convey his congratulations. Prabowo wrote on X: “Together with me, Bobby Kertanegara is also accompanying (me) in welcoming the Ambassador’s visit.” That was a reference to Bobby, a stray that he had adopted as a pet. There is a lovely photograph of the smiling friendship that the feline inspired among representatives of two powerful Asian nations.

Photo-opps apart, Sino-Indonesian relations in the Prabowean era will be based on muscular geopolitics. They will be based geographically.

In Asia, China’s claims to 90% of the South China Sea have long provoked the dissonance of the other claimant states: Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines. Indonesia is not a claimant state and has not sought to reverse Chinese gains in the South China Sea; but as a leader of Asean, Indonesia has had to be a part of the grouping’s objection to Chinese maritime expansion. Prabowo’s insistence on building a strong national maritime defence capacity so that Indonesia can defend itself in the North Natuna Sea is indicative of his position on the South China Sea dispute because of Chinese intrusion into the Natunas.

A scholarly article by Damos Dumoli Agus[1]man of the Faculty of Law of Universitas Indonesia concludes that Indonesia regards China’s claim as a matter of principle and thus takes an uncompromising stand against it. This article was published before Prabowo’s victory, but its coherent arguments apply to what Prabowo, with his military background, would feel obliged to do in the face of Chinese assertiveness in the great sea connecting China to Nanyang, or the region to its south.

Thus, it might be premature to expect Prabowo to continue Joko Widodo’s largely accommodationist policies in the South China Sea. The new president might follow his predecessor’s foreign policy prescriptions generally, but his experience, most recently as Defence Minister, would guide his reflexive response to the military rise of China and Indonesia’s expected response to it as Southeast Asia’s largest power.

On the economic front, however, Prabowo will court Chinese investment and integration as eagerly as Joko Widodo has done. According to Ahmad Syarif, a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins University writing in the journal, Conversation, in December 2023, Indonesia is the China-inspired Belt and Road Initiative’s biggest recipient in Southeast Asia. It has helped Indonesia finance Southeast Asia’s first high-speed train project and has poured billions of dollars in investment into the processing of nickel, a crucial mineral asset.

Apart from Chinese state-directed investment in Indonesia, there are private-sector links that tie the two countries together. “Close relationships with (Indonesian) domestic tycoons have helped Chinese private-sector firms navigate Indonesia’s planning rules and guide the engagement with the country’s domestic politics,” Ahmad Syarif adds. Prabowo’s Indonesia will remain close to China given the cumulative strength of these public- and private-sector alliances, particularly with Jakarta’s desire to persuade Beijing to invest in Indonesia’s new capital project in East Kalimantan.

“Supply-side” China can depend on “demand-side” Indonesia to sustain economic links with it irrespective of maritime disputes.


We should expect America’s relations with Indonesia to be the other side of the same coin: Strategic relations will flourish while economic ties will remain steady. The latter are en shrined in the decision, taken in November 2023, to elevate the bilateral relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership that would be underpinned by cooperation in the areas of critical minerals and energy transition. This is important, but what is perhaps more so is the direction of the strategic in the sense of mil itary relationship between the two nations.

Indonesia is a middle power in Southeast Asia, an area that is shaping up as a crucial buffer zone between the Chinese and American spheres of influence in the Indo-Pacific region. Should China’s newly-assertive role in Nanyang turn out to be an attempt to recreate in essence the precolonial tributary system through which China ruled neighbouring waves, Indonesia would make a formidable difference between success and failure in Sinic adventurism.

Clearly, Indonesia is a swing state whose pendulum would have to move to the Chinese end of the global clock for the re-Sinicisation of Southeast Asia to occur. It is most unlikely that Indonesia would go that way given its own place in Southeast Asian history, one created by the Srivijaya and Majapahit empires, the Mataram Sultanate, the Bali Kingdom and the Maluku Sultanate. Java, Sumatra and other historical regions of Indonesia, which are extant today, and have their own imperial histories that would contest the imposition of a Sinic imprimatur on Nanyang. Hence, there are limits to Indonesia’s instrumental role in any envisaged re-Sinicisation of Southeast Asia. As a middle power, Indonesia would have to relate to China exclusively. What is the point of being in the middle of a spectrum that has one end but not another?

The US is different. It views Indonesia as a middle power in a Westphalian world order that, for better or for worse, allows states to behave as sovereign actors in an anarchic world order. The American concept of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific is loaded in America’s hegemonic favour: All such concepts are so in their great-power formulation. However, that concept allows nations far more scope of choice and action than does a praetorian world order presided over by an autocratic, re-created empire.

For all their common faults as great powers, there are important normative differences between China and America. Indonesia’s chances of practising its “bebas dan aktif” (independent and active) foreign policy are far higher in an American-inspired world order than a reinaugurated Chinese one.

Other great powers Japan, India and Russia will deal with Indonesia on the basis of how it fares in the Sino-US contest for supremacy in Asia. In each case, Prabowo comes to the bargaining table from a position of strength. He has a vision for his country. That vision is realisable, and Indonesia possesses the human and material resources with which to advance its international interests.

Javanese ideals of kingship and other inherited diplomatic instincts give today’s Indonesian leadership the cerebral depth to tackle current great-power challenges. For example, Indonesia’s attempt to proffer a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine War was not adopted by the warring sides, but the initiative proved nevertheless Indonesia’s capacity to intervene in great-power conflicts as an honest broker that possessed international heft as well.

Looking ahead, these are interesting times for an ancient country which is re-creating its modern potential. President Prabowo Subianto embodies a nation that will make its mark on a geopolitical landscape which is being redefined by great-power dynamics. All eyes should be on Indonesia.

The writer is founder and CEO of Pereira International, a Singapore-based political and strategic advisory consulting firm. An award winning journalist and a graduate alumnus of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, he is also a member of the Board of International Councillors at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. This article reflects the writer’s personal views.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like