Prabowo and China

Indonesia’s Minister of Defense and Gerindra’s presumptive presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. Credit: JP/Dhoni Setiawan


Prabowo’s has had a long and colorful political career after leaving the military, currently serving as Indonesia’s defense minister.

Amidst the ups and downs of his political journey, he has contested several times either as vice presidential or presidential candidate in the past three elections. He is also on track to become Gerindra’s candidate for the top office in the upcoming 2024 political contestation.

His multiple losses have not deterred him from contesting again and again, perhaps as a testament of his character as an unyielding soldier of Indonesia’s National Armed Forces.

His first taste of the contest was in 2009 as Megawati Soekarnoputri’s running mate, who was and still is the chairwoman of PDIP. He ran as presidential candidate in 2014 with Hatta Rajasa of PAN in his ticket and five years later with Sandiaga Uno. Incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo defeated him on the last two counts, but made a decision to co-opt Prabowo and Sandiaga as ministers in his current cabinet. Next year’s election will be Prabowo’s fourth.

While we have covered Anies Baswedan’s interactions and views on China in another piece, this piece aims to highlight Prabowo’s interactions with China. A minister in Jokowi’s cabinet, Prabowo is part of the system which foreign policy aligns closely with China’s interest.

If Prabowo wins next year, would his vision sustain or disrupt the close Indonesia-China relationship that has been cultivated by Jokowi?

Formal Engagements as a Minister

Prabowo is one of the Indonesian officials who frequently interacts with China, especially considering his position as defense minister. In November 2019,  for example, Prabowo met with General Wei Fenghe, his then-Chinese counterpart, at the 6th ASEAN Plus Ministerial Meeting in Bangkok. A month after, the two held a face-to-face meeting in Beijing, where they discussed the possibilities of fostering cooperation in the defense industry sector.

In return to this, Prabowo also received a visit from the Chinese Defense Minister in Jakarta in September 2022. The escalation of the South China Sea tension was the subject of this occasion. Prabowo emphasized Indonesia’s unwavering stance to uphold its free and active foreign policy and will continue to push for peace in the region as well.

Then in November 2022, Prabowo again flew to Xi’an to meet with General Wei Fenghe. The two ministers discussed continuing cooperation in areas that were delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, such as joint military exercises and military education.

Prabowo’s Statements on China

On the sidelines of the 2023 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Prabowo took the time to hold a meeting with the new Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu. According to Prabowo, the Indonesia-China relations must be maintained like the ties between siblings, especially to encourage the creation of regional and global stability and peace. He also expressed his full support for optimizing the relationship between Indonesia and China to achieve a comprehensive strategic partnership.

He sought to enhance bilateral cooperation through the formation of the 2+2 Indonesia-China forum. The forum, according to Prabowo, is expected to significantly enhance comprehensive cooperation between the two countries, particularly in the field of defense and security in the future.

Engagements such as this potential forum are not an alien concept in the bilateral relations. Over the years, the Indonesia-China relations has been strengthened through the annual bilateral meeting forum known as the Defense Industry Cooperation Meeting (DICM). This has also become an avenue in which Prabowo meets with his Chinese counterparts.

The defense industry also saw dynamic activities during Prabowo’s stint as minister. During his tenure, Prabowo sought to strengthen cooperation with Chinese companies. Recently, for example, the Ministry of Defense discussed the possibility of a defense cooperation between state-owned enterprises such as PT. LEN, PT. Indonesian Aerospace and PT. Dahana with Chinese companies.

But it was obvious Prabowo’s interest goes beyond the realm of defense, which has been recorded since before his 2019 attempt at running for presidential office. In 2019, Prabowo stated that Indonesia must imitate China’s endeavor in poverty alleviation, which he considered to be a success story within a relatively short time. Interestingly, this was conveyed during one of the debates between 2019 presidential candidates.

It not a secret that Prabowo holds China in high regard. During China’s 69th Independence Day celebration in Jakarta in 2018, he mentioned that China is an important country for Indonesia, necessitating the importance to cultivate good relations with the Middle Kingdom.

In the same month, Prabowo held a meeting with Chinese Ambassador Xiao Qian in Hambalang, Bogor. The meeting was organized as the Ambassador’s way of conveying his gratitude to Prabowo and Gerindra, who had always give warm welcome to the Chinese diplomat. This further accentuates the close relationship between Prabowo and China.

Prabowo responded by stating that anyone who sacrifices their time and energy to travel and meet the Indonesian people truly displays the virtue of sincerity, and thus must be considered a good friend. He also stated that China is a big country with big influence in the world.

These are just snippets of how high Prabowo regards China, but can also be simply interpreted as his efforts to attract China’s money and helping hand. The fact that these statements were delivered before his run in the 2019 presidential election means his approach to China as a potential president could have been a parallel to Jokowi’s own in his administration, which has attracted a lot of Chinese investment and projects over the years.

Things to Consider

The frequency of Prabowo’s interactions with China is indeed noteworthy as an indicator of his potential engagement with China. However, the frequent interaction cannot be extricated from the fact that many of these engagements were made as part of his official post as a minister in Jokowi’s cabinet, which does not make secret its positive sentiment towards China. Thus, part of Prabowo’s display of closeness with China must be viewed from the lens of Jokowi’s larger foreign policy direction.

However, it needs to be underlined that it is possible that Prabowo will remain on good terms with China if he were to clinch the top post in the 2024 presidential election. Prabowo likes to display his views and expertise in foreign policy and global affairs, and thus presidential debates and his first few months as a potential presidential will be critical to gauge his attitude towards China. Of course, a closer alignment with China, under his potential presidency, begs the question of whether he would dial down relationship with Indonesia’s traditional western partners such as the United States and Australia.

There are other factors too. The cooperation between Gerindra and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) actually exists, even though it is not as intimate as the latter’s engagement with PDIP, Jokowi’s political vehicle. Time will tell if Gerindra would play a bigger role in engaging China under Prabowo’s purported administration.

It will be interesting to see the direction of Prabowo’s foreign policy if he assumes the presidency. However, it can be argued that the next Indonesian president – whether it be Prabowo, Ganjar Pranowo or Anies Baswedan – will still maintain good relations with China, considering that China’s influence is already so entrenched in Indonesia. However, there may be a different style of strategy in navigating the bilateral relations compared to Jokowi’s own. It is also important to note that despite his experience in interacting with China, Prabowo lacks experience in discussing economic issues with China. Thus, it would be vital for a Prabowo administration, if he wins, to handpick its chief economist who can translate Prabowo’s views and objectives into sound economic relations with China, provided that the bilateral relations is already dominated by economic matters.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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