Indonesian presidential candidates lack strategic clarity on defense, foreign policy

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
Indonesian presidential candidates lack strategic clarity on defense, foreign policy Indonesian presidential candidates (from left) Anies Baswedan and running mate Muhaimin Iskandar, Prabowo Subianto and running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka, and Ganjar Pranowo and running mate Mahfud Mahmodin, hold their ballot numbers for the Feb. 14 general election as they pose for a group photo following a drawing at the election commission in Jakarta, Nov. 14, 2023.
Willy Kurniawan/Reuters

The three candidates seeking to be Indonesia’s next president are unlikely to offer strategic clarity for defense and foreign policies – two issues that are low on the list of priorities for the nation’s voters ahead of the February 2024 general election.

A controversial court ruling that allowed President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, to run as vice president with Prabowo Subianto is evidence to many that the president is no longer neutral

Instead, he appears to be actively backing his defense minister and two-time presidential rival. The most recent polls show Prabowo, the defense minister in Jokowi’s second administration, leading with more than 40% support

Ganjar Pranowo, the former governor of Central Java, is from Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the same party as Jokowi, who enjoys soaring popularity amid a growing economy. The race should be Ganjar’s to lose. 

He was weakened by PDI-P chairwoman Megawati Sukarnoputri’s meddling and mercurial support. Jokowi, whose rift with Megawati is irreversible and who appears much more interested in establishing a political dynasty than seeing a continuation of his policies, never endorsed Ganjar. Ganjar has also campaigned poorly.

The three presidential candidates – former Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan is the third – are economic protectionists, defenders of Jokowi’s resource nationalism and critical of competition between the great powers. 

All three are vocal advocates of Indonesia’s tradition of non-alignment and have pledged to modernize the military. Without releasing sufficient details, each wants to do so through greater indigenous production.

But unlike Jokowi, each has spoken of a more prominent international role for Indonesia, which is predicted to become the world’s sixth largest economy in the next five years. 

As none of the candidates offer any strategic clarity, to truly understand their differences, one has to analyze their positions on the maritime territorial issue, in particular their positions on China’s aggression and excessive claims.

Maritime territories

Indonesia’s stance on China’s maritime claims is naive. Jakarta has asked for the exact coordinates of its nine-dash line, which appears to go through its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Beijing has refused. 

Indonesia does not recognize China’s boundary line. That gives Jakarta the flimsy excuse that it does not have a territorial dispute with Beijing, despite the China Coast Guard, maritime militia and seismic research ships routinely violating its EEZ. 

As a first-time presidential candidate a decade ago, Jokowi developed a holistic strategy that sought to increase resourcing for the navy and coast guard to protect territorial waters, while at the same time, enhancing the maritime infrastructure to knit the archipelago together and broaden the economic growth. 

Sadly, he never implemented the so-called “maritime fulcrum” strategy and instead has courted Beijing. 

An Indonesian Naval cadet uses binoculars to monitor the signal from the KRI Diponegoro-365 during a joint exercise in the North Natuna sea off Indonesia’s Riau islands, Oct. 1, 2021. [Antara Foto/Muhammad Adimaja/via Reuters]

This year, no candidate has been willing to provoke China. Indeed, the sharp downturn in exports to China in 2023 because of its economic slowdown is expected to slow Indonesia’s economic growth by roughly 1%. 

Anies, who is courting the conservative Muslim vote but falls a distant third in the polls, has been the most critically outspoken against China.

Ganjar has emulated Jokowi the most in terms of defense policy and has been the most hesitant to publicly call out China, which is central to Indonesia’s growth. 

His campaign manifesto focused less on building up the navy and air force, but instead building a coast guard that will be large enough to defend the country’s territorial waters from foreign intervention and illegal and unregulated fishing. 

Ganjar’s defense priorities have focused on cheaper and more asymmetric weapons, including anti-ship missiles, coastal artillery, mines and electronic warfare.

Even as Prabowo has transformed himself from Jokowi’s antagonist into the defender of his legacy, there are differences when it comes to defense and security policies. 

A former son-in-law of the late dictator Suharto, Prabowo, who has denied accusations of human rights violations during his military career, has revitalized the maritime fulcrum concept without releasing sufficient detail. Still, his defense policy is likely to be more bombastic than his rivals. 

Nonetheless, even his rhetoric as defense chief has become less anti-China than it was in the past.

Under Prabowo’s watch as defense minister, Indonesia was largely unwilling to stand up to Chinese bullying or seismic research within Indonesia’s EEZ. This encouraged more Chinese aggression.

He has tried to rapidly modernize Indonesia’s military, in particular, the air force and navy, but the massive buildup of arms has been problematic for several reasons. 

First, there has been little thought as to the country’s strategy. Jakarta has not clearly defined its threats and thus seems to be purchasing weapons more for show than any expected contingency. 

Second, given the historic over-reliance on U.S. weapons and the punishing impact of sanctions, Indonesia has tried to diversify its sources of military hardware. That effort has gone too far with arms coming from 33 countries. 

Aging arsenal

Indonesia, known for trying to modernize on the cheap, is stuck with weapons systems that do not communicate with one another and are not necessarily interoperable. This also creates an astoundingly complicated logistics chain.

Third, there has been little thought as to how Indonesia will pay for this even as the finance ministry has been putting up stiff resistance to Prabowo’s plans. 

A Dassault Rafale multirole combat plane refuels during a demonstration flight by the French Air Force over Indonesia’s Sunda Strait, Sept. 12, 2022. [Adek Berry/AFP]

Modernization of the air force is a case in point. Indonesia has an aging fleet of F-16s from the United States along with SU-27s and SU-30s from Russia. Moscow rejected attempts to enter into another barter agreement to trade military hardware for needed commodities with Jakarta. 

This forced Indonesia to look elsewhere. It purchased 42 Dassault Rafale fighters from France in a U.S. $8.1 billion deal, but also bought a wing of used Dassault Mirage fighters from the UAE for $800 million. 

Prabowo signed an agreement in August for two dozen F-15EX fighter-jets from the United States for an undisclosed sum. 

Previously, Indonesia entered into a 2016 development and production agreement with South Korea for KF-21 stealth aircraft, promising to pay 20% ($958 million) that would qualify it for local production of 48. Since then, it defaulted on payments, prompting Seoul to consider excluding Jakarta from the program.

Foreign policy is usually a low priority for voters and that seems to be the case in Indonesia’s upcoming election. 

And the differences between the candidates in most aspects of foreign and defense policy are not significant. Prabowo is the most vocal about the need for military modernization, but it’s not clear to what end. 

Beyond their pledge of neutrality and fear of being caught up in great power competition, Indonesia has an ill-defined strategy and none of the candidates is likely to make it any more clear.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.


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