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

Prabowo pledged to boost Indonesia's security ties with both China and Japan, in a move that helps 'lay the groundwork' for when he takes over as president in October

Analysts say Prabowo's visits signal his intention to present a 'good neighbour policy' as he seeks to boost Indonesia's defence and economy

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

This week's visits by Prabowo Subianto - Indonesia's president-elect and current defence minister - to China and Japan are being seen as a "major diplomatic coup" that analysts say signal his objectives of strengthening Jakarta's defensive capacity with the West while maintaining good economic ties with Beijing.

Following a three-day visit to Beijing at the invitation of China's leader Xi Jinping, Prabowo touched down in Tokyo on Wednesday, where he met Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Defence Minister Minoru Kihara.

Kishida said the visit showed that Prabowo attached "great importance to Japan", which is a "long-standing" friend of Indonesia.

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"Prime Minister Kishida stated that Japan would contribute to Indonesia's development through cooperation in such fields as infrastructure development and energy and support Indonesia's efforts to proceed with the process of its accession to the OECD," Japan's ministry of foreign affairs said in a statement released on Wednesday.

"In response, President-elect Prabowo expressed his gratitude for Japan's assistance to date and his hope to further enhance bilateral cooperation in a broad range of areas including security, agriculture and fisheries as well as disaster prevention," the statement said.

Prabowo visited China and Japan in his capacity as defence minister.

Indonesia is trying to join the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 38 member countries, including Japan and the United States, that are typically democratic and support free markets.

Kishida and Prabowo also discussed regional issues such as the situation in the East and South China Seas, dealing with North Korea on the nuclear and missile issues, and the crisis in Myanmar.

Meanwhile, Kihara "reiterated [to Prabowo] his opposition to any unilateral change of status quo by force as well as any actions that increase tensions in the South China Sea", according to a statement from Japan's ministry of defence.

Kihara also said he "wants to maintain and enhance a 'Free and Open Indo-Pacific' based on the rule of law together with Indonesia".

Prabowo's stated intention of enhancing security ties was not reserved for Tokyo. During a meeting with his Chinese counterpart Dong Jun on Tuesday, Prabowo said Indonesia was "willing to further strengthen defence cooperation with the Chinese side and continuously promote the development of the relations between the armed forces of the two countries", according to state news agency Xinhua.

An editorial in The Jakarta Post newspaper on Wednesday lauded Prabowo's China and Japan trips as a "major diplomatic coup", saying they were a "very positive step in laying the groundwork for the larger diplomatic arena that he will navigate once he takes office in October".

Balancing act

Lina Alexandra, an international relations expert with the Centre of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Indonesia, said Prabowo's trips this week were a "symbolic move" signalling his future foreign policy direction, one in which he could "interact with anyone".

"Prabowo gave a signal that he wanted balanced relations with all countries. He wants to show his 'good neighbour policy', at a very early level," she said.

Prabowo's trips also showed he wanted to strengthen Indonesia's defence capacity while simultaneously growing the country's economy, said Ahmad Rizky Umar, a lecturer at the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland in Australia.

"Prabowo's campaign manifesto placed great emphasis on the modernisation of defence equipment. In the last five years, Prabowo has struggled to negotiate defence issues in the cabinet because [Indonesia's] fiscal capacity is limited," he said.

The lack of budget for defence equipment procurement has strained Prabowo's relationship with Finance Minister Sri Mulyani, who reportedly will not be joining his incoming cabinet.

"As president, Prabowo will be in a more powerful position in negotiating the budget in the cabinet," Ahmad said.

Jakarta and Beijing generally enjoy a close bilateral relationship. China was Indonesia's second-largest foreign investor last year with US$7.4 billion worth of investments, behind Singapore's US$15.4 billion. Japan ranked fourth with US$4.6 billion.

In his campaign, Prabowo vowed continuity with outgoing president Joko Widodo's programmes, including boosting China's investments in Southeast Asia's largest economy. That vow was delivered personally when he met Xi on Monday.

"Once again, I would like to emphasise that I would like to continue the policies of President Jokowi," Prabowo told Xi, according to state news outlet CCTV, referring to Widodo's nickname.

"I am determined to use all his achievements as a foundation for my programmes. I fully support a closer and higher quality relationship between [China] and Indonesia."

But Beijing's aggression in the South China Sea has caused skirmishes in the North Natuna Sea, which is internationally recognised as part of Indonesia's exclusive economic zone but falls within China's nine-dash line that claims more than 90 per cent of the resource-rich waters as theirs.

Prabowo's Japan visit, however, indicates he may take a tougher line when Indonesia's sovereignty is at stake, according to Nur Rachmat Yuliantoro, head of the international relations department at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta.

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," he said.

Prabowo has long been seen as a close friend of Washington, despite his chequered human rights record earning him a ban on entering the US and Australia at the turn of the century. That ban was overturned after he was installed as defence minister in Widodo's cabinet in 2019.

Lina of CSIS said it was a "smart move" by Beijing to quickly extend an invitation to Prabowo, making it the first country that the former general visited following his victory in February's national polls.

"I think they know that Prabowo's preferences are more towards Western countries, especially the US. If we look at his schedule after his inauguration [in October] as president, he has to attend the G20 summit in Rio de Janeiro [in November], after that he goes to Peru for the Apec summit," Lina said.

"With a schedule like that, Prabowo will almost certainly stop by the US. China would be concerned if Prabowo's first overseas trip as a president is to the US."

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