from Asia Unbound

Prabowo, Jokowi, and Foreign Policy

June 26, 2014

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The third debate between Indonesian presidential candidates Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, and Prabowo Subianto, held over the weekend, was supposed to focus on foreign policy and defense policy. At least that was the idea. It made sense that two men who want to be the president of the biggest power in Southeast Asia, and one that has become increasingly assertive on the world stage, would need to offer their views on Jakarta’s foreign policy.

No one seems to have told Prabowo and Jokowi that, though. The debate was bland and both presidential candidates seemed lost talking about foreign policy.

Though Prabowo has a detailed campaign platform and can talk in depth about his ideas for economic policy—although sometimes sounding like a more bombastic Hugo Chavez when he rails about the economy—the former general offered little but generalities about what his foreign policy would look like. His lack of any specificity, other than talking about how Indonesia needed to protect its territorial integrity (i.e., Papua) and its natural resources and capital, was especially worrying given Prabowo’s tense relations with countries that are important partners of Indonesia like Singapore, Australia, and the United States.  Prabowo is currently on the U.S. visa ban list because of his alleged links to human rights abuses committed on his watch as head of the Indonesian army’s Strategic Reserve Command. Several Southeast Asian diplomats I have spoken with fear a Prabowo presidency immensely. They worry that, while Prabowo has far more international experience than Jokowi, Prabowo will want to dominate ASEAN leaders’ meetings and will have no interest in the consensual style that Southeast Asia meetings follow.  To some extent, shaking up ASEAN’s style would be a good thing, and could only be accomplished by an Indonesian leader. Unfortunately, Prabowo would be unlikely to push ASEAN in the direction the organization needs to go—that of a more forceful organization that uses its power to promote political and economic opening.

What’s more, Prabowo’s constant inveighing against Indonesian capital fleeing Indonesia has Singapore worried that, as president, Prabowo might try to muscle the city-state, which is a haven for that capital and has developed an immense private banking industry.

Jokowi was no better in the debate, and he comes with his own concerns on foreign policy. The Jakarta mayor, the first presidential candidate to come of age politically after Indonesia’s democratic transition, surely would be better suited to push the country farther toward democracy. But on foreign affairs, Jokowi has minimal experience, other than dealing with some diplomats and foreign investors during his short stint as Jakarta governor. During the debate, Jokowi tried to project confidence that he actually has a better grasp on foreign affairs than people thought, but he said little about issues critical to Indonesian policy such as ASEAN, the role of Indonesia in ASEAN, Indonesia’s relationship with China and the United States, Indonesia’s views on disputed areas of the South China Sea, and other important topics.

Instead, Jokowi talked extensively about how Indonesia must do more to protect the rights of Indonesians who migrate to other countries for work, a reasonable topic given the large number of Indonesians who work in Malaysia, Singapore, and the Gulf kingdoms, where many have allegedly been mistreated. (Issues with mistreatment in Malaysia and the Gulf states have become an irritant in Indonesia’s relations with these nations.) Jokowi also talked generally about the importance of diplomacy in Indonesia’s regional relationships, but seemed to have little idea which of these relationships were most important, or how, more specifically, he might handle the country’s currently contentious relationships with Australia and China, two very important countries to Jakarta.

Overall, the debate performance was extremely underwhelming. One hopes that a President Jokowi or a President Prabowo, in office, would gain a far greater understanding of foreign policy than either man has shown on the campaign trail.

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