Prabowo is unlikely to rock the boat with China

His presumed presidential victory means a shift in Indonesia’s relations with Beijing is not on the cards

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, once a fierce critic of China, has emerged as the likely winner of Indonesia’s presidential election. His presumed victory is unlikely to lead to any major shifts in the Southeast Asian nation’s relations with Beijing.

But concerns about work safety and environmental pollution linked to Chinese investments risk testing the stability of the relationship, as well as Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.

While President Joko Widodo was in office, China became Indonesia’s largest trading partner, tapping into its rich resources. 

Jokowi, as he is often called, has urged China to bring even more capital to Indonesia, which has become a major player in President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Beijing has invested billions in supporting crucial infrastructure construction in the country, including the Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Railway, which opened in October.

Strong relationship

There is also Cirata, the largest floating solar power project in Southeast Asia, which went completely online last year.

“I don’t think there will be a dramatic change in relations with China,” Faisal Nurdin Idris, a lecturer at the department of international relations at UIN Jakarta, told Voice of America’s Mandarin Service, adding:

Jokowi has built a strong relationship economically with China. 

During his previous run for the presidency in 2019, Prabowo tried to turn Jokowi’s warm relations with Beijing against him. He seized on public anger with suggestions that Chinese workers were stealing local jobs.

But in more recent speeches, Prabowo has expressed a desire to have good relations with the United States and China at the same time.

The glitzy expo for the Belt and Road project. Photo: Social Media

Speaking at a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta in November, he noted that Washington played a historic role in pressuring the Netherlands to recognize Indonesian sovereignty in the 1940s.

He also praised China’s economic accomplishments.

Despite their benefits to development, Chinese investments in the country have also come with controversy.

Teuku Rezasyah, an associate professor in international relations at Padjadjaran University, pointed out that Indonesia has previously reported several accidents at Chinese-owned factories, as well as environmental pollution incidents.

He said this is a problem that Prabowo must carefully consider before taking office.

Workers protest

Otherwise, even if the government welcomes Chinese investment with open arms, it may cause local environmental and social problems, and improper handling could trigger anti-China sentiment.

“Some Chinese investment came too quickly to Indonesia. Often, it was a political decision,” Teuku said, adding: 

Demonstrations came in Morowali because the people found that the investment would not benefit them.

Last year, an explosion occurred at one of the Chinese-financed nickel processing plants in Indonesia’s Morowali Industrial Park, killing 21 people. The incident became the third fatal event at a Chinese-owned nickel smelter in Central Sulawesi in 2023. 

Hundreds of Indonesian workers protested at the factory. Police later named two Chinese citizens as suspects.

China’s navy has conducted live-fire drills in the South China Sea. Photo: PLA

Prabowo is aware of the problems at some investment projects, and he has from now until he is sworn in to come up with solutions, according to Teuku.

In addition to Chinese investment, how Prabowo will handle the sovereignty issues between Indonesia and China in the future will also be a key factor.

Like several of its Southeast Asian neighbors, Indonesia disputes China’s claim to most of the South China Sea, including part of its internationally recognized exclusive economic zone. 

Yet the dispute has not involved confrontations such as those between the Philippines or Vietnam and China.

Yohanes Sulaiman, an associate professor in international relations at the Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani in the Indonesian city of Cimahi, said that if Beijing continues its military expansion in the South China Sea, Prabowo may respond aggressively.

United stand

“His response will depend on what China does. If China is using water guns and water cannons [as] it did in the Philippines, you can expect an equally forceful response from Indonesia, unlike Joko Widodo,” he said, adding:

If there are too many controversies, then you can expect, above all, that we are kind of escalating.

Lecturer Faisal Nurdin Idris believes that Prabowo may first discuss the South China Sea issue with other ASEAN countries that also have sovereignty disputes with China, so they can take a united stand against Beijing.

Peh Hong Lim is a producer at Voice of America.

This article is republished courtesy of Voice of America. Read the original article here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.