Indonesia’s Jokowi emerges as surprise power broker at G-20

Indonesian President Joko Widodo attends a news press conference after the G-20 Leaders’ summit in Bali, on Nov 16, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA – Despite being the world’s fourth-most populous nation and the biggest economy in South-east Asia, Indonesia has long punched below its weight in international affairs. That changed at 2022’s Group of 20 summit. 

With a mix of careful diplomacy and good humour, Indonesian President Joko Widodo managed to bring a sense of collegiality to a world riven by conflict and crisis.

A meeting that started on the resort island of Bali with high tensions around Ukraine, United States-China relations, climate change and inflation ended with a joint statement that seemed improbable only days before. 

China’s President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Joe Biden exceeded low expectations with an in-person meeting that saw cooperation restored across a range of key areas, stabilising a relationship between the world’s biggest economies that had been drifting towards conflict.

That set the tone for broader agreement on a statement in which “most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine” – one of the biggest public dressing downs to date of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who stayed at home.

The soft-spoken, smiling Indonesian leader known as Jokowi served as a calming presence throughout the world’s most highly anticipated diplomatic showdown.

Whether driving leaders around in a golf cart or leading them to plant mangroves in tropical heat, Mr Jokowi set the tone for a successful summit. And to top it off, he walked away with US$20 billion (S$27.5 billion) in financing to help Indonesia pivot away from coal.

“Before this, almost everyone was pessimistic,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters on Wednesday. “In previous international meetings everyone else failed, so reaching this declaration that was the consensus by all parties is in my opinion extraordinary.”

The result was a culmination of months of careful diplomacy. Indonesia, which maintains non-alignment, resisted pressure to isolate Russia for invading Ukraine. Instead, Mr Jokowi flew to Kyiv and Moscow, extending invitations to both Mr Putin and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky while becoming the first Asian leader to visit Ukraine since the war began. 

While neither man took up the offer, both countries participated. Mr Putin sent Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was said to have stayed in the room as Mr Zelensky addressed the grouping virtually. G-20 leaders also remained in their seats when Mr Lavrov addressed the summit, despite suggestions ahead of time they might not. 

That marked a contrast from the discord at other gatherings held in 2022. Trade representatives for the US and Russia in May staged a tit-for-tat walkout during an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Thailand. 

Just days before the start of the G-20, the US and Russia disagreed over the language at a summit hosted by Asean in Cambodia, prompting the meeting to close without a traditional joint statement.

“Indonesia deserves considerable credit for getting through without any major blow-ups,” said Mr Greg Poling, head of the South-east Asia programme at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “After all the political fireworks, they were able to discuss the real issues that Indonesia wanted on the agenda: food security, climate change and energy security. That’s a win.”

Indonesia under Mr Jokowi has gradually been stepping up its international presence.

In 2021, his government played a key role in negotiations that led to the US exiting Afghanistan. The nation also led efforts at Asean to hold the Myanmar junta accountable for continued violence against civilians after the military seized control of the government in a 2021 coup.

During his address to G-20 leaders on Wednesday, he was direct. 

“Stop the war. I repeat: stop the war,” he said. “The global economic recovery will not happen unless the situation improves.”

South-east Asia has largely refrained from picking sides among competing major powers – a bid to fortify regional centrality and ensure greater economic benefits for the region’s nearly 700 million people. That has kept the door open for Indonesia to take up the mantle of independent mediator amid a persisting stalemate at the United Nations Security Council. 

“Indonesia is traditionally adroit in managing strategic challenges at the critical moment,” said former Asean secretary general Ong Keng Yong. “Indonesian officials are seasoned diplomats, and it is always dicey to take their country and president for granted.”

For Mr Jokowi, who is nearing the end of his final term in office, his main focus is driving new investment to fund a US$34 billion new capital in Borneo. On Wednesday, he also announced his intention to host the 2036 Olympic Games there.

“From an Indonesian point of view, this was a very successful G-20,” said Singapore-based Mr Achmad Sukarsono, lead analyst for Indonesia at Control Risks. “What Indonesia wants to do is showcase Indonesia to the other members. Now I see headlines saying, ‘Jokowi the global leader.’” BLOOMBERG

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