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Why Indonesian Presidential Candidate Anies Baswedan is Likely Bad News for China

08 Jun 2023
By Dr. Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat and Yeta Purnama
Anies Baswedan at Fatmawati MRT Station, posing with two commuters. Source: VulcanSphere/

Anies Baswedan has strong Western connections and a pro-development agenda. His success at the polls will likely spell a downsizing for Beijing’s political relations with the world’s largest Muslim majority nation. 

On 24 March 2023, three major Indonesian parties officially nominated Anies Baswedan, the former governor of Jakarta, as a candidate for president of Indonesia. The elections are to be held in February 2024. The three parties include NasDem (National Democrat), the Prosperous Justice Party, and the Democrats, which are together called the Change Coalition.

One thing that has been highlighted the most since Anies’ nomination is the direction of the political mecca that he will be forced to adhere to if he wins the election. This “mecca” is often associated with the two big influential powers in Indonesia, namely China and the United States.

Compared to other presidential candidates like Ganjar Pranowo, the current governor of Central Java, whose domestic political activities are often loved by the national media, Anies is best known for his more active role in building relations with other countries across the world. For the most part, these external interactions have been limited to western nations and partners.

Anies’ travels to date have been based on partnership building with the western world, which is considered bigger than China in market terms – despite the obvious favour of China under the current government. An illustration of this are Anies’ 2022 visits to four European countries, including England, Germany, France and Luxembourg.

In a joint visit to England, the delegation discussed collaboration on the electrification of the Transjakarta bus fleet with Bloomberg New Energy Finance. This program was pursued to push the target of achieving emission-free Jakarta by 2050. In addition, Anies also offered partnership on the development of Jakarta’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), a new subway system connecting suburbs and the city to eight British companies (Crossrail International, XRail Group, Arup, Colas Rail, BDP, Alstom, Mott MacDonald).

Other visits to European capitals have been equally fruitful. In Germany, the then governor met with the mayor of Berlin to discuss the Jakarta Future City Hub and the prospects for opening collaboration on the development of smart cities. The smart cities concept aims to develop Jakarta with digital technology to optimize city functions, and to reduce costs and consumption in order to obtain effective and sustainable benefits for its citizens.

In meeting with French counterparts, he was able to secure partnership for construction of the MRT Jakarta phases 3 and 4, with the two French companies Alstom and Thales. This collaboration included further projects with Alstom on rail systems solutions that includes a rolling stock, signals, infrastructure, and an MRT Jakarta procurement scheme; and Thales, regarding technology solutions for ticketing systems integration. The final stop in the European leg of these travels was Luxembourg to discuss infrastructure cooperation with the European Investment Bank.

At other events, Anies has also been active currying favour with American counterparts and Biden administration officials. On the sidelines of the G20 in Bali in mid-November 2022, Anies was invited onto the Bloomberg CEO Forum to share his experiences while serving as Governor of the Capital City. He was also spotted discussing Indonesian politics with Sung Yong Kim, the United States Ambassador to Indonesia, over lunch together in Nusa Dua, Bali. Among his many Australian contacts, Anies has also caught up with Malcolm Turnbull, the former prime minister of Australia. The two discussed energy and global climate change.

By comparison, Anies has met with the Chinese only rarely, with the most recent occasion in 2019 with the ambassador to Indonesia, Xiao Qian. Ever in the interests of boosting Jakarta’s partnerships, the meeting discussed the views of the two on the potential for sister city collaboration, with partnerships for the tourism sector, along with urban planning, culture, industrial and trade cooperatives.

There are at least three reasons why China is unlikely to fulfill a central role in Anies Baswedan’s political agenda if he wins next year’s presidential election. First, when viewed in terms of visits and closeness, Anies looks closer to the western world and the United States.

This is likely influenced by several things, one of which is Anies’ educational background. He attended the University of Maryland for a master’s degree and then Northern Illinois University for his doctorate – through the US Fulbright Program scholarship.

The second rationale is more political. Indonesian politicians with close relationships to Chinese Communist Party leaders have generally suffered defeat at the polls. The third reason is that Anies does not want to be equated with the Jokowi-era of leadership, which is seen as leaning towards China. He wants to change the perspective of the Indonesians towards the government which has been criticised by the people for being too pro-China.

Should Anies Baswedan see victory in the 2024 election, Indonesia is likely to end the pro-China narrative that has characterized the current government’s foreign affairs. A foreign policy agenda, which is likely to be significantly different from the previous government, will diversify Indonesia’s partners, while searching for opportunities to build greater cooperation with Western partners.

Dr. Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a researcher at the Center of Economic and Law Studies. His research focuses on China-Indonesia-Middle East relations.

Yeta Purnama is a researcher at the Center of Economic and Law Studies.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.