Indonesian President-Elect Visits China, Japan to Balance Ties Ahead of Inauguration

The Lede: Early this week, Prabowo Subianto, Indonesia's defense minister and president-elect, met Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top officials in Beijing. He made a similar trip to Japan directly after. Warming relations between Jakarta and Beijing follows a larger trend of southeast Asian countries seeking closer ties to China while continuing to entertain Western cooperation. 

What We Know:

  • Prabowo arrived in Beijing on Sunday and met with Xi the next day. He also met with Premier Li Qiang and Defense Minister Dong Jun during his visit. This was his first overseas visit after he won Indonesia’s presidency in the February election. The main aim of the visit was to strengthen bilateral relations and increase cooperation in the defense sectors between Beijing and Jakarta.
  • Prabowo also visited Japan on Tuesday and Wednesday, and met with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday, as well as with Japan's Minister of Defense Minoru Kihara. The two countries discussed many of the same areas of cooperation that were discussed with China.
  • In the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s 2024 State of Southeast Asia survey, 50.5% of respondents showed a preference for China over 49.5% for the U.S. in the case that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had to choose a side between the rivalling superpowers. 

The Background: China usually welcomes foreign leaders for a visit after they are inaugurated with Xi opting for a telephone call with election winners and extending an invitation for an in-person meeting after. China’s ambassador to Indoensia Lu Kang was one of the first officials to congratulate Prabowo with a visit to the defense minister’s residence. Tensions have been rising in the South China Sea between China and the Philippines. Later this month, U.S. President Joe Biden will host Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for the first such trilateral summit in Washington regarding Indo-Pacific security. Indonesia hosted the G20 summit in 2022 and ASEAN summit in 2023. Japan also hosted the ASEAN-Japan Commemorative summit in Tokyo at the end of last year. Last year, Indonesia also inaugurated Southeast Asia’s first high-speed railway, a project under China’s Belt and Road Initiative. 

Likely Outcomes:

  • Indonesia’s incumbent President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has maintained a "non-align" policy with the world’s major powers and China is likely hoping to stay on amicable terms. Prabowo’s high-level visits this early on before his inauguration demonstrate the level to which relations with Indonesia are valued and contested in the regional rivalries. As is the case with his predecessor and with other Southeast Asian countries in general, Prabowo will likely play both the U.S. and Chinese sides of the geopolitical competition. The economic benefits may be more obvious than military and security matters as tensions increase the possibility of conflict in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly with the South China Sea and Taiwan.     
  • The brewing contentiousness of the geopolitical sentiments shifting due to Israel’s war in Gaza is also playing a role in how respondents answered in the survey of southeast Asian people. This may have affected the results in a way that potentially distorts purely regional considerations for a number of SEA countries. Public opinion aside, Indonesia’s ‘non-align’ policy will operate in a likely accommodative space of cooperation between China on one side and the U.S. and its allies, such as Japan, on the other. Thus, Indonesia can expect economic growth and boosted military capabilities alongside strengthened international political ties in the two distinct blocs of partnership.  


“I also commit to fulfil the needs of Indonesia’s military hardware, boost cooperation in the defence industry and establish productive dialogues.” - Prabowo Subianto, Indonesia's defense minister and president-elect

"Prabowo and his team might benefit from early communication from the Chinese government regarding their plans in the next five years, which will also rely on foreign investment, especially from China." - Dandy Rafitrandi, researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

“Japan is seen as the ‘strongest face’ of the defence alliance with the US in the region. Prabowo can use Japan to get closer to the US, win them over and, at the same time, put pressure on China.” - Nur Rachmat Yuliantoro, head of the international relations department at Gadjah Mada University

“[People in Southeast Asia] recognise China’s growing clout, but at the same time, fear potential Chinese economic coercion, oppose threats to their sovereignty, and generally don’t trust China to do the right thing. SEA countries seek diversity in their relationships.” - Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific programme at the German Marshall Fund of the United States

Good Reads:

Indonesia's Prabowo meets Xi in rare pre-inauguration China visit (Nikkei)

New Indonesia leader visits China, promises close ties (Reuters)

China and Indonesia vow to boost defence ties as Prabowo Subianto seeks to reassure Beijing ahead of inauguration (SCMP)

Majority of ASEAN people favor China over U.S., survey finds (Nikkei)

Indonesia’s Prabowo scores ‘major diplomatic coup’ with China, Japan visits in signal of future policy direction (SCMP)

Indonesia's Prabowo visits Japan for balance after his China trip (Nikkei)