China and the United States are major factors in Indonesia’s presidential contest.

Virdika Rizky Utama is a researcher with the think tank PARA Syndicate in Jakarta.

Indonesia’s upcoming presidential election has the potential to impact the country’s finely balanced approach to foreign policy. That in turn could affect regional power balances and economic relationships.

Indonesia is pivotal for both superpowers: to China as a trade hub and to the U.S. as a democratic pillar in the Indo-Pacific region.

Thus, it is important to look at the geopolitical influences behind each presidential ticket, with the campaign having formally kicked off on Tuesday. The affiliations of the candidates hint at potential regional shifts and reveal complex alliances and historical connections.

Anies Baswedan, who previously served as education minister under President Joko Widodo and as governor of Jakarta, is the only one of the three presidential candidates to have done his university studies in the U.S., earning a master’s degree from the University of Maryland and a doctorate in political science from Northern Illinois University.

As a result, some observers see him as the most U.S.-inclined of the three candidates, suggesting that his studies demonstrate an appreciation for American democratic values. From this perspective, the visit by Sung Kim, U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, to the headquarters of the Prosperous Justice Party, which has nominated Anies, in February takes on added significance.

This perspective may be surprising, in that the Prosperous Justice is the most Islamist of Indonesia’s major parties and because of Anies’ central role in bringing down Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who preceded him as Jakarta governor but was jailed for blasphemy in 2017.

Yet Anies’ ability to navigate the intricate socioreligious fabric of Indonesia, and his familiarity with Western political frameworks, may have led Washington to see him as a leader who can potentially harmonize the interests of the U.S. and Indonesia.

On the other hand, Anies has gone out of his way in recent years to embrace Indonesia’s minority communities, particularly ethnic Chinese. This has helped heal the wounds from his role in the downfall of Purnama, a pathbreaking ethnic Chinese politician also known as Ahok, and has garnered favorable attention from China, Indonesia’s largest trading partner.

It should also be noted that Ambassador Kim and other U.S. officials have directly interacted with the other two candidates, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto and Ganjar Pranowo, former governor of Central Java.

As with Anies, Prabowo’s relationship with the U.S. is complicated.

Although he previously received military training in the U.S., Prabowo was denied a visa to visit in 2000 for his son’s university graduation, apparently because of his alleged involvement in human rights abuses in the 1990s when he was the commander of the country’s special forces under strongman leader Suharto.

But since joining Widodo’s administration as defense minister in 2019, Prabowo has enjoyed warm relations once again with U.S. officials, and he has signed a number of defense deals with Washington.

Meanwhile, his choice of Gibran Rakabuming, Widodo’s oldest son, as his running mate is likely to be seen positively by Beijing, given its friendly links to the current administration. It also enhances Prabowo’s domestic appeal. Gibran brings a fresh perspective, representing the younger generation’s aspirations and ensuring the continuity of his father’s influence.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Beijing in October: Beijing has been supportive of Widodo’s efforts to build a new national capital. (China Daily via Reuters)

Ganjar is probably the candidate most appealing to Beijing, though. His Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, of which Widodo is also a member, has long had close ties with the Chinese Communist Party.

Beijing has been supportive of Widodo’s efforts to build a new national capital, called Nusantara, on the island of Borneo. Under the rubric of the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese companies have shown interest in financing and leading Nusantara infrastructure projects.

At this point, Prabowo appears the candidate with the most momentum, though, particularly after tying up with Gibran. Despite Widodo’s proclamation of neutrality in the race, the popular president is expected to lend indirect support to Prabowo even at a cost to his own PDI-P.

The election is unlikely to be decided on foreign policy issues per se. For most Indonesians, pressing local issues, such as the economy, education and infrastructure, are bigger priorities. Both Ganjar and Anies can point to solid achievements in local governance, while Prabowo enjoys strong support bases in West Sumatra and West Java.

Still, many Indonesians are likely to look at the candidates through the lens of their perceived ties to the U.S. and China. Indonesia has long steered an uneasy course between the two powers, and any suspicions a candidate is too close to one or the other will likely bring scrutiny.

Washington and Beijing themselves will also be closely watching the campaign. Each will be looking for any edge they can get in Southeast Asia’s largest economy. The stakes are too high for them to stay completely on the sidelines.