Singapore – As defense leaders from across the Asia-Pacific region gather in Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue, much of the focus has been on the rising tensions between the United States and China.
The three-day Security Summit, organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, is the most important defense-related conference in the region. This year, more than a dozen defense leaders from around the world, including the United States, China and others, attended.
After a two-year hiatus, the event is back and attracting distinguished guests, including Indonesian Defense Minister and former presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto.
The former major met with Jessica Washington of Al Jazeera during the Shangri-La Dialogue, and shared his thoughts on the war in Ukraine, and the modernization of Indonesia’s military arsenal.
Al Jazeera: In your conversation in the Shangri-La interview, you talked about the “Asian way”. Where is Indonesia from this idea?
Subianto: This is our culture that we always try to solve through negotiations, interactions, engagement, we keep sharing, we keep discussing until we come to a mutually friendly and beneficial solution. This is the Asian way.
It is the Indonesian way. We call it Musyawarah mufakat (discussion to reach a solution) and we call it gotong royong (working together). We are looking for common interests. If we always talk about differences, we may not even meet.
Al Jazeera: The major focus during this summit was on the tensions between the United States and China. What is the role of Indonesia in dealing with these tensions in your opinion?
Subianto: We are in the real and actual situation 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 also helped us. China has also defended us and now China is a very close partner with Indonesia. Indeed, China has always been the leading civilization in Asia. Many of our sultans, kings and princes in those days were marrying princesses from China. We have hundreds of years of relationship.
So it is normal. So, you asked me, what is our position, as good friends we try to be, perhaps a good common bridge. If not, we maintain good relations.
We are convinced that both forces will have wise leadership. I’m optimistic in this respect, many people are of course understandably concerned, and yes there are risks. But I think the leader of China would be wise, the leader of the United States as well. They are super powers. The world expects them to give us good leadership.
Al Jazeera: And what about some aspects of Indonesia-China relations, where there are differences of opinion… for example the South China Sea. How do you overcome those challenges?
Subianto: As I said, through good relations and good communication with direct contacts, we can reach a friendly understanding that is mutually beneficial.
Al Jazeera: The US Secretary of Defense, earlier in the speech, mentioned Indonesia, specifically the naval exercises called Garuda Shield…
Subianto: Garuda Shield has been going on for 14 to 15 years, but we also have exercises with other countries. We are also planning to conduct exercises with China.
Al-Jazeera: The US Secretary of State spoke about the situation in Ukraine, and you said in your speech that it is a very sad situation. Do you have anything else to say about it?
Subianto: Historically and geopolitically, there are always two versions of the story. Indonesia, as you know, we voted with many Western countries in opposing the invasion of Ukraine – this is our position on the invasion.
But again, I would like to say that Russia has been a very good friend of Indonesia all these years. We have good relations with Russia, they also helped us when we were in difficulties and as I mentioned, a friend in need is already a friend. Never forget the friends who helped you. This is our position.
We say that all great powers must be respected, and their fears must be respected.
Al Jazeera: You have made modernizing Indonesia’s defense capabilities a priority. How is that going?
Subianto: It’s going well, of course, everything needs what I call an incubation period, we can’t go to the supermarket and buy defensive equipment. I would say it’s going well, of course, I’m very impatient, I wish it would go faster, maybe if I had a magic wand.
Al Jazeera: After your talk, you were asked about the region and you said that each country can make its own decisions. Anything else to say about it?
Subianto: This is basically the right of each country to assess its security needs. So I can’t tell the Australians or the British what to do. Nor do I want them to tell us what to do. We respect each other.
Al Jazeera: May I ask for your views on the situation in Myanmar?
Subianto: I think Indonesia’s position is very clear not to recognize the regime in Myanmar
Al Jazeera: Let’s look at an internal issue in Indonesia. There is debate about the plan to create new provinces in Papua, and some international human rights groups have raised concerns about the security implications and the impact on human rights.
Subianto: There’s always this, I would say double standards or triple standards, anything that countries like Indonesia do. They always try to stress the possibility of human rights violations. I think our needs, we have vast areas and that has been under 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 leading role among countries that take a neutral stance?
Subianto: Leadership is not something we can give ourselves. I think the best form of statecraft in my opinion is tidying up your home. If we take good care of our home, people will look at us.
Al Jazeera: Speaking of leadership, your plans for 2024, do you plan to run for the presidency?
If I need, if there is strong support for me, I must put myself at the service of my people and my country.
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