Q&A: Indonesia’s defence minister on security in the Asia-Pacific

At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Indonesia’s Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto tells Al Jazeera he is confident the leaders of the US and China will be ‘wise’.

Indonesia's Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto speaks at the second plenary session of the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore June 11, 2022.
Indonesia's Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto speaks at the second plenary session of the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, June 11, 2022 [Caroline Chia/ Reuters]

Singapore – As defence chiefs from around the Asia-Pacific gather in Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue, much of the focus has been on growing tensions between the United States and China.

The three-day security summit organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies is considered the most important defence-related conference in the region. This year, more than a dozen defence chiefs from around the world, including the US, China, and more, are attending.

After a two-year hiatus, the event has returned and attracted high-profile guests, including the Indonesian defence chief and former presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto.

The former lieutenant general met with Al Jazeera’s Jessica Washington during the Shangri-La Dialogue, sharing his thoughts on the war in Ukraine, and modernising Indonesia’s military arsenal.

Al Jazeera: In your speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, you spoke about the “Asian way”. Where does Indonesia fit into that idea?

Subianto: That is our culture that we always try to resolve problems with negotiations, with interactions, with engagement, and we keep on engaging, we keep on discussing until we come to an amicable, mutually beneficial solution. That is the Asian way.

And it is the Indonesian way. We call it musyawarah mufakat (discussion to reach a solution) and we call it gotong royong (working together). We look for common interests; if we always talk about the differences, we might not even meet.

Al Jazeera: A big focus during this summit has been on US-China tensions. What do you see as Indonesia’s role in dealing with those tensions?

Subianto: We are in the real and actual position that we respect and we are friendly, and we are good friends. We have good cooperation with both powers — I have said that many times. The United States has helped us many times, in our critical moments. But China has also helped us. China has also defended us and China is now a very close partner with Indonesia. And actually, China has always been the leading civilization in Asia. Many of our sultans, kings, our princes in those days, they would marry princesses from China. We have hundreds of years of relationship.

So it’s natural. So, you asked me, what is our position, as good friends we try to be, maybe a good common bridge. If not, then we maintain the good relationships.

And we are convinced that both powers will have wise leadership. I’m optimistic on that front, many people, of course, understandably are concerned, and yes there are dangers. But I believe the leader of China will be wise, and the leader of the US also. They are great powers. The world will expect them to give us good leadership.

Al Jazeera: What about some of the aspects of Indonesia-China relationships, where there are differences of opinions… for example the South China Sea. How do you navigate those challenges?

Subianto: As I said with good relations, good communication with direct contacts, we can come to an amicable understanding that’s mutually beneficial.

Al Jazeera: The US Secretary of Defense, earlier in the speech mentioned Indonesia, specifically the naval exercise called Garuda Shield…

Subianto: Garuda Shield has been going on for 14-15 years, but we have also exercises with other countries. We also plan to have exercises with China.

Al Jazeera: The US Secretary talked about the situation in Ukraine, and you mentioned in your speech, you said it is a very sad situation. Do you have anything else to say on that?

Subianto: Historically, geopolitically, there are always two versions to a story. Indonesia, as you know we voted with the many western countries in opposing the invasion of Ukraine — that’s our position on the invasion.

But once again, I would like to say that Russia has been a very good friend to Indonesia all these years. We have good relations with Russia, they helped us also when we were having difficulties and as I mentioned, a friend in need is a friend indeed. Never forget friends who helped you. That’s our position.

We say all the great powers must be respected, and their concerns must be respected.

Al Jazeera: You have made it your priority to modernise Indonesia’s defence capabilities, how is that going?

Subianto: It is going well, of course, everything needs what I call an incubation period, we can’t go to the supermarket and buy defence equipment. I would say it’s going well, of course, I’m pretty impatient, I wish it could go faster, maybe if I have a magic wand.

Al Jazeera: Following your speech, you were asked about the region and you said each country can make their own decisions. Anything further to say on that?

Subianto: Basically that’s the right of every country to assess their own security needs. So I cannot tell the Australians or the British what they should do. I also don’t want them to tell us what to do. We respect each other.

Al Jazeera: Can I ask for your views on the situation in Myanmar?

Subianto: I think Indonesia’s position is very clearly do not recognize the regime in Myanmar

Al Jazeera: Let’s look at a domestic issue in Indonesia. There is discussion about the plan to create new provinces in Papua and some international human rights groups have raised concerns about security implications and the impact on human rights.

Subianto: There’s always this, I would say double standards or triple standard, anything countries like Indonesia do. They always try to emphasise the possibility of human rights abuses. I think our needs, we have vast areas and that has been in discussion and planning for many years.

Al Jazeera: Indonesia’s foreign policy has long been guided by the phrase ‘free and active’. Do you see Indonesia as having a leadership role among countries that take a neutral stance?

Subianto: Leadership is not something that we can award to ourselves. I think the best form of statecraft in my opinion is to get your own house in order. If we take care of our own house in good order, people will look to us.

Al Jazeera: Speaking of leadership, your plans for 2024 — Are you planning to run for the presidency?

If I am needed, if there is strong support for me, then I have to put myself at the service of my people and my country.

Source: Al Jazeera