China not expected to let past overshadow relations with Indonesia’s new leader Prabowo Subianto

Future Indonesian president Prabowo Subianto’s controversial past has raised questions inside China about what his approach to Beijing will be, but diplomatic observers broadly expect him to continue the current pragmatic stance.

Prabowo was a special forces general in 1998, when widespread anti-Chinese riots broke out that left over a thousand people dead across the country.

An Indonesian fact-finding team later found that elements of the military had instigated the attacks, which activists said were orchestrated to divert public anger away from the government led by Prabowo’s father-in-law Suharto in the middle of a financial crisis.

Prabowo, now defence minister, has always denied involvement in the attacks, but they dominated discussions about his election on Chinese social media, raising concerns he might try to turn the country against China.

But an article on the social media account of the state-owned Xiwen Evening News dismissed these worries, adding that Indonesians had largely forgiven him for his chequered past, including his role in targeting protesters and dissidents.

Prabowo’s presidency: new chapter in Indonesia-China ties or business as usual?

According to unofficial tallies – which have proved relatively accurate in past elections – Prabowo has secured an unassailable lead over his two opponents in the race to succeed Joko Widodo.

He has signalled he will continue the brand of politics practised by the current president, usually known as Jokowi, and whose son Gibran Rakabuming Raka was his running mate. Most observers expect this to include the approach towards China.

Wang Yiwei, a professor of international relations at Renmin University, said China’s ties with Indonesia had been “troubled” in the past, particularly under Suharto, who adopted an anti-China, anti-Communist stance.

“China is forward-looking,” he said, citing a significant jump in Chinese investments in Indonesia which have included intensive infrastructure investments such as a high-speed rail link on Java that was opened by Widodo.

China is Indonesia’s largest trading partner and it contributed US$3.6 billion in foreign direct investment in the first half of 2022, according to Indonesian government figures, while Chinese Premier Li Qiang committed US$21.7 billion in new investments when he visited Jakarta last September.

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Prabowo Subianto, left, and his running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the son of President Joko Widodo. Prabowo has pledged to continue the legacy of the man widely known as Jokowi. Photo: AP

Wang Huiyao, founder of the Beijing-based think tank Centre for China and Globalisation, said Prabowo might have had “some history … but the situation has greatly changed” and relations were “much better”.

He said China and Indonesia shared similarities such as belonging to the so-called Global South group of developing economies.

“I don’t think any newly elected leader of Indonesia would treat China-Indonesia relations lightly,” he said. “We need to look at the present and to the future. China-Indonesia relations are at an all-time high.”

The success of the railway project launched last year – which Chinese state media described as carrying “historical significance” – showed the friendship between the two countries, according to Wang.

Lv Xiang, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said “history is history” when it came to the former general’s past, but he said this may prove more of a problem in dealing with the United States and other Western nations compared with China.

During the Suharto era, Prabowo’s unit was accused of kidnapping dissidents and student activists, some of whom have never been found.

Prabowo warns of foreign meddling on Indonesian election campaign’s final day

He was dismissed by the military because of his involvement in these disappearances and the US banned him from entering the country until he visited as defence minister in 2020 because of these and other accusations concerning special forces operations in East Timor and Papua.

“This is a bigger problem that he may have to face,” said Lv, arguing that Western countries may “take advantage” of Prabowo’s past to pressure him.

He also expected Washington to try to shift Indonesia from a so-called “swing state” to one that supported the US.

Under Widodo’s leadership, Indonesia – like most Southeast Asian states – has refrained from taking sides in the superpower rivalry and has maintained friendly relations with both.

He said Beijing saw Indonesia as an important bridge with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and expected political and economic relations to continue to develop.

“I personally do not see any negative signs,” he said.

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03:09

Prabowo Subianto declares victory in Indonesian election as early counts give him 58% of votes

Prabowo Subianto declares victory in Indonesian election as early counts give him 58% of votes

Indonesia analysts also said his past was unlikely to be a stumbling block to closer ties with China.

Muhammad Waffaa Kharisma, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, said the 1998 violence was aimed at ethnic Chinese “less so towards China, the state”.

He said Widodo’s foreign policy had been a pragmatic one and “ambitious and friendly” towards China, which has been a “major friend”.

Although Prabowo has pitched himself as offering continuity, Muhammad Waffaa suggested that he could be a more active and present leader on the international stage but may prove more “erratic”.

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02:04

Presidents Xi and Widodo watch Chinese-built Indonesian bullet train make first trial run

Presidents Xi and Widodo watch Chinese-built Indonesian bullet train make first trial run

“We still need to wait until we see how Prabowo’s impulses may shape our foreign policy, too, as it could be that Indonesian foreign policy can be further driven by the more pragmatic element of our free and active doctrine,” he said, referring to the policy of trying to maintain good relations with all sides.

Yohanes Sulaiman, a political analyst at the University of Achmad Yani in West Java, said he did not expect a big change in Indonesia’s foreign policy, but Prabowo is “far more nationalistic” than Widodo and may take a firmer stance on maritime conflicts.

Indonesia has long-standing disagreements with China over its exclusive economic zone off the Natuna Islands near the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost entirely.

“He still maintains the reputation of a strongman who can get things done and somebody who is decisive … he will not act like Jokowi in the South China Sea,” Yohanes said. “He will be more forceful.”

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Prabowo Subianto pictured in 1998, when we was a special forces commander. Photo: AP

He said Prabowo needed to show the international community and businesses that he has a “consistent and predictable” foreign policy, but may feel obliged to respond to any provocations in the disputed waters.

Lv from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said as long as Prabowo’s government was sincere, such as in the development of its economy and infrastructure, its relationship with China “will only get better. I really don’t see any difficulties so far”.

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