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Indonesian President-elect Prabowo meets with Chinese leader Xi, discusses deeper strategic ties

Indonesian President-elect Prabowo Subianto met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing on Monday and was expected to travel on to Japan for similar high-level talks during an unprecedented trip by the uninstalled head of Indonesia’s next government.

Outgoing Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo agreed to the travel plans of the president-elect who continues to serve as defense minister, according to Jokowi’s office. Prabowo is to take the oath of office in October, when he becomes Indonesia’s first new president in a decade.

“Yes, he had received permission,” a source at the Presidential Staff Office who was not authorized to speak on the trip and asked for anonymity told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated news service, on Monday.

Prabowo was scheduled to meet with Chinese Prime Minister Li Qiang and Defense Minister Dong Jun before leaving for Japan on Tuesday, where he was to meet with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Minoru Kihara, officials said.

The news on Friday that China’s president had invited his future Indonesian counterpart from Southeast Asia’s largest country raised eyebrows in Jakarta, because no president-elect had ever undertaken such a trip abroad. Prabowo’s trip to China and Japan – a close ally of the United States – is also his first foreign journey since he won the Feb. 14 presidential election.

During Prabowo’s meeting with the Chinese president, Xi told Prabowo that China was willing to enhance “comprehensive strategic cooperation” with Indonesia and make positive contributions to regional and world peace, said Brig. Gen. Edwin Adrian Sumantha, spokesman for the Indonesian Ministry of Defense.

Prabowo expressed the hope to Xi that the largest country in Asia and the largest one in Southeast Asia could continue strengthening their strategic partnership, Edwin said.

“Regarding defense cooperation, I view China as one of the key partners in ensuring regional peace and stability,” Prabowo said, according to a statement released by the Indonesian defense ministry.

“I am also committed to fulfilling Indonesia’s Minimum Essential Force (MEF), including increasing defense industry cooperation and productive dialogue,” the Indonesian president-elect said.

The statement did not mention the South China Sea despite a recent study by Indonesia Strategic and Defence Studies (ISDS) and Kompas Research and Development finding that nearly three-quarters of Indonesians see China’s activities in the waterway as a threat to Indonesia’s sovereignty.

“The Indonesian public does not like the aggressiveness of Chinese ships which are pushing into Indonesian territory,” ISDS co-founder Erik Purnama Putra told BenarNews last month, referring to waters around Indonesia’s Natuna islands.

Edwin said Prabowo was to go to Japan for a Tuesday meeting to strengthen long-standing bilateral relations.

“Yes, the statement is confirmed. He will also visit Japan on April 2 to 3, scheduled to meet with the Japanese prime minister and defense minister,” Edwin told BenarNews on Monday.

Chinese officials led by President Xi Jinping (left side of table) meet with President-elect Prabowo Subianto and other Indonesian officials in a meeting room at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, April 1, 2024. [Indonesian Defense Ministry]

During his meeting with Prabowo, Xi also emphasized that China was ready to make positive contributions to maintaining regional and global peace and stability.

“President Xi emphasized the importance of cooperation between China and Indonesia in maintaining maritime security in the Southeast Asia region, especially regarding the South China Sea issue which is of global concern,” Edwin said.

Prabowo conveyed greetings and a message from Jokowi to Xi, and said he was happy to make China the first country he visited following the election.

In his message, Jokowi told Xi that his successor as president supported developing closer ties with China and would continue Indonesia’s friendly policy toward China, according to Xinhua, the Chinese state-run news agency.

During Jokowi’s nine years in office, bilateral trade with China has soared and Beijing has invested billions of U.S. dollars in infrastructure projects in Indonesia.

Recalling the development of bilateral relations over the past decade, Xi said both sides had made the Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Railway an example of high-quality cooperation and entered a new stage of development.

China views its relations with Indonesia from a strategic and long-term perspective, Xi said, according to Xinhua.

He said Beijing would work with Jakarta to build a Sino-Indonesian community with a shared future that has regional and global influence to contribute to regional and world peace, stability and prosperity.

‘Too soon’

Indonesian international political analysts, meanwhile, questioned making China the first stop for Prabowo before taking office.

“Prabowo’s visit to China is too soon. It would have been better if he had waited until he was inaugurated first, then visited a foreign country,” Raden Mokhamad Luthfi, a defense analyst at Al Azhar University, told BenarNews last week.

“Visits to foreign countries by the newly inaugurated Indonesian president should first be toneighboring ASEAN-member countries such as Malaysia, considering that Indonesia’s interests are much greater in ASEAN than in other countries,” Raden said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Prabowo has bucked tradition in another way as well with his overseas trip, according to Zulfikar Rahmat, director of the China-Indonesia Center of Economic and Law Studies (Celios).

“There are two reasons for this. The first is, of course, that Prabowo sees China as a partner in the economic sector. We know that in recent years, China has been Indonesia’s number one trading partner,” he said.

Last year, Indonesia became the largest recipient of Chinese investment in the Southeast Asia region with a figure reaching U.S. $7.3 billion, according to data from the State’s Investment Coordinating Board.

In October 2023, Erick Thohir, State-Owned Enterprises minister, said the Indonesia-China Business Forum had resulted in 31 business cooperation agreements reaching at least 200 trillion rupiah ($15.5 billion).

Even so, he added there is still potential for cooperation of up to $28.6 billion with China covering infrastructure, energy, manufacturing and tourism.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.