Indonesia’s presidential candidates set to spar on foreign, defence policies

Among the hot-button issues expected to be raised during the debate are the recent influx of Rohingya refugees into Sumatra, as well as the modernising of the Indonesian military.

Yvette Tanama

Yvette Tanama

The Jakarta Post


Foreign policy analysts also hope that the event will explore each candidate’s strategic policies in navigating a superpower rivalry that poses threats to the region. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

January 8, 2024

JAKARTA – The three 2024 presidential contenders have declared their readiness for the third election debate on Sunday on geopolitics, international relations, globalization, international politics, defense and security, amid an increasingly tense regional landscape and pressures for Indonesia to equip itself better for potential conflicts.

Among the hot-button issues expected to be raised during the debate are the recent influx of Rohingya refugees into Sumatra, as well as Indonesian Military (TNI) modernization. Foreign policy analysts also hope that the event will explore each candidate’s strategic policies in navigating a superpower rivalry that poses threats to the region.

Former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan, whose running mate is National Awakening Party (PKB) chair Muhaimin Iskandar ; Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto who is running with Surakarta Mayor Gibran Rakabuming Raka and former Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo and running mate Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD, will take to their podiums on Sunday night.

Ahead of the debate, Prabowo’s camp has touted his four years as defense minister, which have provided him with an understanding of the country’s defense and security priorities as the government proceeds with modernizing the military.

“He understands the issue very well,” said Prabowo’s campaign team spokesperson Rahayu Saraswati on Wednesday, as quoted by Antara. “He understands the primary weapon systems that are actually needed [by Indonesia] and where to get them at an affordable price.”

Prabowo’s military track record would also help him master the topic, said the team’s deputy head Habiburokhman, as reported by

Efforts to modernize the TNI’s aging capabilities have been ongoing since the outlining of the Minimum Essential Force (MEF) concept in 2005. The work, however, has faced obstacles partly due to low weapons procurement.

Things seemed to pick up pace in 2019 when Prabowo assumed the defense minister’s position, since when he has engaged with weapons-producing countries and managed to acquire some used primary weapons systems.

Ensuring the TNI fulfills the MEF requirements is also a priority for the Ganjar-Mahfud pair, whose campaign has suggested expanding the defense budget and building a strong domestic defense industry. But the presidential candidate has expressed his disagreement with some of Prabowo’s work as defense minister.

“I’m very optimistic about the debate,” Ganjar said earlier this week while campaigning in Central Java, before throwing a jab at his rival: “Let’s just look at the decisions made so far. We can’t talk about defense and then buy used planes. There’s no such thing.”

Meanwhile, the campaign team of Anies-Muhaimin has hinted at the former Jakarta governor’s readiness to talk about weapons acquisition and its budgeting. The team added that Anies would likely bring up the issue of Rohingya refugees.

The sudden and high influx of Rohingya refugees landing in Aceh and North Sumatra has caught the nation’s attention in recent weeks, especially due to local people’s increasing hostility toward the displaced minority group.

Protests and violent acts broke out in parts of Aceh after a number of boats carrying refugees arrived in late November, leading to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s announcement that Jakarta would investigate suspected human-trafficking rings responsible for the boat arrivals.

Anies previously promoted welcoming Rohingya refugees on humanitarian grounds, saying on several occasions that a political will was needed to ensure their harmony with the local population.

“We can confirm that Pak Anies is 100 percent ready,” said campaign team spokesperson Billy David Nerotumilena as quoted by Antara. “He’ll come with critiques, data and other surprises.”

Regional focus

One issue pertaining to Indonesian diplomacy that analysts deem worthy of discussion in the debate is how the country will navigate the tensions between the United States and China through strategic foreign policy.

Like many Southeast Asian countries, Indonesia has been caught for years in the middle of the two superpowers’ rivalry, forcing the nation to ensure a balanced engagement with the US and China despite heightened political and security tensions in the region.

As an institution claiming supremacy in the region, ASEAN has struggled to keep the region free of foreign nuclear weapons. The bloc is also frequently toothless when tensions in the South China Sea reach boiling point.

“None of the presidential candidates actually understand what this means. Taking short pragmatic moves will only make it worse,” said Lina Alexandra, head of the international relations department at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“The rivalry has limited Indonesia’s moves abroad and could take its independence hostage,” she continued.

ecurity analyst at Jenderal Achmad Yani University (Unjani) Yohanes Sulaiman echoed Lina’s sentiment, adding that many of Indonesia’s foreign interests were defined by the region’s stability.

“The topic of weapons procurement has been going on for a while. I don’t expect any breakthroughs,” he said. “What I want to see is a deeper understanding of our next moves or what to do about ASEAN. The problem of the Rohingya and the South China Sea are all related to ASEAN.”

The televised debate on Sunday will take place at Istora Senayan in Jakarta. The General Elections Commission (KPU) has picked 11 expert panelists to formulate questions for the candidates.

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