Unaligned – or undecided? Prabowo, China and US

Apr 5, 2024
China and Indonesia Flags Crossed And Waving Flat Style. Official Proportion. Correct Colors. Image iStock/Stock Ninja Studio

This week Prabowo Subianto has been in Beijing at the invitation of President Xi Jinping. It’s the Indonesian president-elect’s first major overseas trip after winning the 14 February election. No come-soon card yet from Washington, so China’s getting in first. Should we be worried? Duncan Graham reports:

China already has our near neighbour in a debt headlock having lent more than US $27 billion and invested US $8 billion.

Last month a “new wave” of Chinese investments into Indonesia was announced, including for an e-car factory – though no $ signs. In the race for influence, there’s little we can do but whinge from the sofa.

Key question: Will Indonesia driven by new President Prabowo Subianto cruise the fast lane with Beijing, the archipelago’s largest trading partner, or tailgate Washington and its weaponry?

Racism v royalties

In Indonesia, there are two China issues – nation and people.

Citizens are ambivalent about the PRC – its business dealings, philosophy and nine-dash line claims in the South China Sea. Confrontations have created waves of jingoism, but the Natuna Sea (Indonesia’s name) has recently stayed calm.

If a storm erupts expect Prabowo to indulge in chest-thumping on a warship’s foredeck in front of missile launchers, though little else. His nation doesn’t have the muscle; its population is eleven times bigger than Australia’s, but five times smaller than China’s.

In a pious society, the deep hate of godless Communism adds to the wariness, but even fanaticism must yield to finance: Selling gold, (the Grasberg deposit in West Papua is the world’s third largest producer), coal, nickel and other resources keep Southeast Asia’s biggest economy buoyant, while local stores are stuffed with goods marked Made in China.

The archipelago is home to about three million ethnic Chinese. Although often lumped together because of features and values, differences thrive. They are full citizens but race is visceral, an ever-present factor in relationships.

Sinophobia has been rife for centuries. Some families have been in the archipelago since the 13th century, married locals, fought for independence and only speak Indonesian. That hasn’t stopped the persecution.

Only since 2000 can citizens follow Confucius, use hanzi (Chinese characters) on shop signs and have faith festivals recognised. The minority was banned by second president Soeharto (1966 -98) from the military and public service so turned to banking and soon had the government in thrall.

Outbreaks of mass slaughter have occurred across the generations. In 1965 a purge of real or imagined Communists took an estimated 500,000 lives.

The latest killings erupted in 1998 when more than a thousand bled and burned in Jakarta riots. Shopping malls were firebombed, and Chinese women were allegedly raped though no one was charged.

Exceptions abound but the pribumi (native Javanese) generally dislike and distrust the Orang Cina who have a street reputation for being sly, greedy and insular. These odiums have never been encountered by your footloose correspondent.
They’re also known as the Jews of Asia, smart, entrepreneurial and hard-working. Some have become powerful oligarchs. A few flaunt their wealth adding resentment to the aversion.

Wanted workforce

Separate are the skilled Chinese who work on Beijing-funded projects, toll roads and mining plants. Locals accuse them of stealing jobs – more friction.

When the work’s done some head home. Not all: Late last year an industrial accident killed 21 workers (eight were Chinese) at a nickel smelter angering all employees who claimed safety was sidelined in the race for profit.

Like Australia, Indonesia supports the One-China Policy; it has a trade office in Taipei while Taiwan has one in Jakarta. Last year business between the two states nudged $ 10 billion, mostly favouring Indonesia.

Despite the covert racism, the average member of the nation’s 1,331 ethnic groups interacts with Chinese neighbours, shopkeepers and congregations, but contact with Americans is rare as there are less than 12,000. Hollywood images fill the gap.

The US sells weapons having neutered a deal with Russia. Last year Jakarta ordered 24 F-15EX fighter jets from Boeing.

Research by the Pew Institute suggests Indonesians are twitchy about Trump but think positively of the US and Barack Obama in particular. As a child, he lived in Indonesia for a while and was schooled in Jakarta.

Prabowo is more cosmopolitan than Jokowi and relaxed using English. He was taught in Indonesia and London and educated militarily in Georgia. He was later banned from the US and Australia for alleged human rights abuses.

The security game

Defence Minister Prabowo claimed to be turning a security relationship with the US into a “comprehensive strategic partnership” whatever that’s supposed to mean.

“Indonesia always takes the position of trying to maintain the best of relationships with all nations, especially all major powers. We consider China to be a friendly nation … (disagreements) resolved through dialogue”.

These cliches were conceived in 1948.

Then-Vice President Mohammad Hatta (1902 – 80) asked rhetorically: “Do we, Indonesians, in the struggle for the freedom of our people and our country, only have to choose between Russia and America? Is there any other stand that we can take in the pursuit of our ideals? … the best policy to adopt is one which does not make us the object of an international conflict.”

Non-alignment has its metaphor – mendayung antara dua karang (rowing between two reefs), a line used regularly as the nation’s foreign policy position. In a UN debate condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Jakarta backed the motion plus a Chinese armistice proposal.

Before becoming the overwhelmingly successful candidate in February’s Presidential election Prabowo restated his country’s non-aligned stance, then tipped his baseball cap to the PRC.

“I do admire and acknowledge the success of the Chinese leaders in nearly eradicating poverty,” Prabowo reportedly said at a Washington forum in November.

“It behoves us to try to learn how they did it, but it doesn’t mean that we can copy their methods. Maybe their methods [are] not in tune with our culture so we have to adjust.”

He then tossed in a storing-and-consuming line: “On the other hand we cannot copy what works for the West.”

If all this seems vague and contradictory, it is. So try the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s explanation: “What will make a Prabowo foreign policy unique may come less from his understanding of the world and more from his personality and interests.

“He’s known to be impatient, prone to anger, and deeply emotional. He’s also unpredictable—often disregarding the counsel of his advisers. Despite being surrounded by a praetorian guard of former defence and military officials, Prabowo is largely his own foreign policy and defence adviser.”

Attempts to better mould our view have failed: Requests to interview Prabowo have been ignored.

In a for-or-against global crisis following a blockade or invasion of Taiwan, Indonesia will splash around rowboats and reefs, spruik non-alignment and try to be all things to all people. Japan and the Philippines (which clashed with a Chinese coastguard last month) have already shown they’re cosy in the US camp. They’ve got less to lose.

Prabowo knows Washington’s Southern Hemisphere branch office has airfields and an armory close by, so will ultimately, nervously and with many caveats and time limits subtly side with Amerika Serikat.

For the moment, anyway.

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