When the first president of an independent Indonesia—the charismatic Sukarno—convened the nascent non-aligned movement in Bandung in 1955, the host country had a population of 80 million and was among the world’s poorest. The Indonesian archipelago was peripheral geographically, economically, and strategically, and Sukarno’s autarkic bent ensured that it would remain so. Today, Indonesia, as it did then, finds itself between great powers competing for regional sway. Yet it is peripheral no more.
Indonesia is now the world’s fourth-largest country, with a population of 270 million, and is classified as middle-income by the International Monetary Fund. Moreover, it straddles the world’s most critical shipping chokepoint, the Strait of Malacca, linking the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, and it holds the largest reserves of a key twenty-first-century resource, nickel. Though Sukarno’s successor, the anti-communist Suharto, turned Indonesia toward America in the second half of the Cold War, its Sukarno-era foreign policy outlook—bebas dan aktif (independent and active)—has returned, with Indonesia avoiding outright alignment with either the U.S. or China.
On February 14, Indonesians will go to the polls to elect a new president, the country’s fourth since instituting reforms after Suharto’s 1998 fall. The man Indonesians pick will replace the term-limited Joko Widodo—known universally as Jokowi—whom they elected in 2014 and 2019.
Upon Jokowi’s first inauguration, it was easy to imagine that Indonesia would form a closer bond with the United States. Then-president Barack Obama, who had lived in Indonesia as a child, had just initiated his “pivot to Asia,” which included the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. By 2016, however, Americans had elected Donald Trump, who pulled out of the TPP, claiming that it sold out the middle class. Jokowi’s presidency was to prove disappointing, with its democratic backsliding and rejection of global market capitalism.
All the while, Indonesia’s global significance has continued to grow. Today, its economy is the world’s seventh largest. Indonesia is a pivotal target partner for both the U.S. and China—a strategic swing state, in other words—owing to its demography, economy, and geographic position as the region’s southern girdle. Jokowi, who calls Indonesia the “global maritime fulcrum,” has proved a receptive partner for China’s regional economic overtures. Indeed, he has adopted an economic philosophy reminiscent of China’s in its own earlier stage of development, emphasizing resource wealth, commissioning infrastructure megaprojects, and prioritizing indigenous manufacturing. Most notable is Indonesia’s ban on nickel-ore exports, by which it hopes to ascend the commodity value chain by forcing domestic refining.
Indonesia’s turn away from global markets has resulted in a dense network of Chinese enterprises within Indonesia’s borders. While few Western or Japanese firms have opted to refine nickel within Indonesia, Chinese ventures abound. Indonesia is also a leading beneficiary of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which funded the now open Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway. In 2023, Chinese Premier Li Qiang announced more than $20 billion of additional infrastructure investments by Chinese firms in Indonesia—a final feather in Jokowi’s cap.
Despite the tightening economic linkages, Indonesia is by no means a Chinese ally. As is the case around the South China Sea basin, China has repeatedly violated Indonesia’s maritime rights in its quest for resource dominance, irritating Jakarta. In 2022, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Southwest Asia’s leading think tank, concluded that more Indonesians are worried about China’s rise than are enthused by it. Consistent with bebas dan aktif, Indonesian scholar Bama Andika Putra stresses that Jokowi “had no intention of being embroiled in Sino-US competition.”
Barriers to Sino-Indonesian cooperation permeate local affairs as well. In 1998, modern Indonesia’s annus horribilis, mobs in Jakarta and other cities targeted the country’s ethnic Chinese, who make up 5 percent of the population and whom some view as proxies for Suharto (who by then had proven himself a kleptocrat). Rioters ransacked Indonesia’s Chinatowns and committed hundreds of rapes and murders.
The paroxysms of 1998 were tinged with the intensification of Islamic identity, which today is a greater force than ever in the Muslim-majority country and contributes to Indonesia’s wariness of both China and the United States. This dynamic still affects local politics, too. In 2017, an Indonesian court jailed an ethnic Chinese politician for suggesting that Muslims could vote for him, a non-Muslim. Though it has not been a consistent theme, hints of prejudice against ethnic Chinese Indonesians have emerged in the current election cycle.
As Jokowi exits the presidential palace formally, he is sowing dynastic seeds. The odds-on favorite to take the largest vote share on February 14—and either win through an outright majority or claim pole position in a June run-off—is Jokowi’s rival-cum-ally, Prabowo Subianto.
The two men were once seen as embodying distinct strains within Indonesian politics. Whereas the disarming Jokowi rose from humble origins as a furniture salesman outside of Jakarta and got his start in politics as a small-city mayor, Prabowo committed human rights abuses as a top lieutenant of the deposed Suharto. He even married Suharto’s daughter.
After defeating him at the polls in 2019, however, Jokowi brought Prabowo into the fold, appointing him defense minister. Now, Prabowo calls himself a “keen student” of Jokowi, and the two schemed to change Indonesian election law to allow Jokowi’s 36-year-old son to become Prabowo’s running mate.
What does Indonesia’s politics demand of the Biden administration, or a 2025 successor? First, recognition of the folly of grafting the Western ideological paradigm onto societies where it does not fit. American media and major international-relations journals hailed Jokowi’s 2014 arrival as Indonesia’s liberal awakening. It was not. If Prabowo becomes president, Western media will sound alarms about the arrival of “Indonesia’s Trump.” Such descriptions will be unhelpful.
Rather than ostracizing an Indonesia under Prabowo’s leadership, the next administration should make solidifying the relationship a priority for U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific region. Though they are now working together, Prabowo’s central critique of Jokowi in 2019 was that he was too cozy with Beijing. That wariness of close affiliation with a larger power—bebas dan aktif, through and through—presents Washington with an opportunity. Without indulging the uglier side of Prabowo’s xenophobia, the United States should extend to Indonesia new trading possibilities. While the Biden administration’s strategic cooperation with Indonesia has been valuable, the administration has failed to utilize trade and has, to date, left Indonesia with every reason to draw closer to China.
Once peripheral, Indonesia is now at the center of Indo-Pacific affairs, every bit the global maritime fulcrum that Jokowi envisions. From an American perspective, the country is too big, too resource-rich, and too strategically situated to let fall prey to Beijing’s inducements. Indonesia will not be an American ally any time soon, but a Prabowo election victory could help Washington ensure that Jakarta remains safely non-aligned.
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