JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The two-day Indonesia-Africa Forum (IAF) in Bali was meaningful in terms of business for the host country, because it resulted in trade deals totaling US$1.08 billion (S$1.42 billion). But the Bali gathering is equally important for President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's Indo-Pacific grand strategy.
The timing of the April 10 and 11 meeting itself was chosen to commemorate the historic Asia-Africa Conference of April 1955 in Bandung.
However, the fact that Jokowi delegated Vice President Jusuf Kalla to open the forum on Tuesday indicates that the President is giving priority to foreign policy platforms that can help him boost his credentials in the run-up to next year's election. His initiative to mediate in the Rohingya crisis and the prolonged war in Afghanistan, for example, is telling.
Jokowi's absence from such an important forum is regrettable, because although he might expect the arrival of more heads of government from Africa, the forum could have given his foreign policy platform a boost. The President fully entrusted Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi to lead the forum, with the hope that Indonesia can tap the opportunities African nations are offering.
The President's no-show could be a blessing in disguise for the Foreign Ministry.
For Retno, the forum gave her a chance to prove her foreign policy mettle not only to her boss, but to the whole nation as well with regards to the Indo-Pacific strategy. Indonesia, which connects the Indian and Pacific oceans, should not miss the momentum while other powers like Japan, India, Australia and the United States have been intensifying their campaign to realise this geopolitical vision.
Jokowi raised the concept of enhancing cooperation among littoral countries during the Asean-India summit in New Delhi last January. At various world forums, Jokowi unveiled his vision to grow Indonesia as a global maritime fulcrum and his speech in India was the culmination of his maritime power platform.
The new regional grouping concept received a huge boost when US President Donald Trump repeatedly raised the urgency of cooperation among countries located in the two oceans. No one knows Trump's real motive, but China sees it as a hidden attempt to isolate the world's second-largest economy.
The India-Pacific concept does not originally belong to Jokowi. It has been circulating for quite some time. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe raised the issue in a speech to India's parliament in 2007. Six years later, then-Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh referenced Indo-Pacific during his visit to Tokyo.
The key point of Jokowi's Indo-Pacific strategy is his emphasis on Asean as the driver of a car that will bring those on board to a common destination. He also underlines the need to avoid overlaps with existing regional and multilateral forums and to involve China from the very beginning.
The Foreign Ministry should continue to follow up on the President's grand design because whoever leads the nation in the future, Indonesia's key role in the Indo-Pacific regional architecture matters.
The Jakarta Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.