JAKARTA (AP) — When Indonesians vote Wednesday to elect a new president in one of the world's biggest elections, the stakes will also be high for the United States and China.
The Southeast Asian country is a key economic and political battleground in a region where rival world powers have long clashed over Taiwan, human rights, U.S. military deployments and aggressive actions by Beijing in disputed waters, including the South China Sea.
Outgoing President Joko Widodo's foreign policy avoids criticism of Beijing and Washington, but also rejects alignment with either power. This delicate balancing act has seen China acquire considerable trade and investment in Indonesia, including a $7.3 billion high-speed railway largely financed by China, while that Jakarta has also strengthened its defense ties and intensified its military exercises with the United States.
These policies would likely continue if Prabowo Subianto, the current defense minister whose vice presidential candidate is Widodo's eldest son, wins, analysts say.
“I think none of the major structural aspects of defense and foreign policy will change,” said Evan Laksmana, a Southeast Asia security expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.
Subianto adheres to a policy of neutrality and has publicly praised the United States and China. He cited America's historic role in pressuring the Netherlands to recognize Indonesian sovereignty in the 1940s during a November forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Jakarta.
“This is part of history and we cannot forget this debt of honor,” said Subianto, who also touted China's importance to Southeast Asia. “China is a great civilization. It has contributed a lot and now it is very, very active and contributes a lot to our economy.”
Former Education Minister and Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, a presidential candidate who trails Subianto in most independent surveys, said he would change what he calls Widodo's “transactional” foreign policy towards a policy anchored on principles if he triumphs in the elections.
“When a country invades another country, we can say that it goes against our core values. Even if we are friends, if rights have been violated, we can reprimand it,” Baswedan told the Associated Press in an interview last month, without specifying which country it was. alluded to.
Baswedan said human rights and environmental protection should underpin Indonesia's foreign policy. “If we don't have values, then there is a cost-benefit relationship where we will only support countries that are profitable for us,” he said.
Both the United States and China understood how the emergence of a new leader in the region could threaten their interests.
Rodrigo Duterte, after ascending to the Philippine presidency on his anti-crime agenda in 2016, became one of Asia's most vocal critics of US security policy while maintaining close ties to Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Duterte threatened to expel U.S. military personnel who were in the Philippines for combat exercises. He then moved to end a defense deal with Washington that allowed thousands of Americans into the country for large-scale combat exercises, but he ended that effort by calling on the U.S. United in delivering vaccines at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
Duterte's stormy tenure ended in 2016 and he was replaced by Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who approved an expansion of the U.S. military presence in Philippine military bases as part of a 2014 defense pact. Marcos said his move was aimed at strengthening his country's territorial defenses at a time of increasing aggression from the Chinese coast guard, navy and suspected militias in offshore areas claimed by the Philippines.
China protested the move, saying it would provide US forces with staging areas in the northern Philippines, across the maritime border with the Taiwan Strait, which could compromise Chinese national security.
Indonesia and other member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations belong to the Non-Aligned Movement, a Cold War-era bloc composed mainly of developing countries that aspire to not be formally associated with or against any major world power.
Yet the rivalry between Washington and Beijing permeates the region.
Criticism of China's increasingly assertive actions in the disputed South China Sea has historically been watered down within ASEAN, the 10-member regional bloc.
Member states aligned with Beijing, particularly Cambodia and Laos, opposed any such reproach or attempt to single out China as the subject of criticism in joint communiqués after their annual summits, several said. regional diplomats to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity over the years. because they did not have the authority to speak publicly.
Last year, the Philippine government accused the Chinese coast guard and suspected militias of using water cannons, a military-grade laser and dangerous maneuvers against Philippine coast guard patrol vessels that provoked minor collisions during a series of high seas clashes in disputed waters. .
Under Indonesia's presidency, ASEAN did not specifically mention China, but only expressed general concerns about aggressive behavior in the disputed waterway after their summit meetings.
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