President Jokowi to step up his game during the US-Asean summit: The Jakarta Post

Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Feb 10, 2016.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Feb 10, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

The White House has announced that US President Barack Obama will host a summit for 10 Asean leaders in Sunnylands, California, US, on Feb 15 and 16. The summit will be Obama's final attempt to cement his "rebalance" towards Asia focus amidst growing tension in the Middle East. The purpose of the US-Asean Summit at Sunnylands is to strengthen ties between the US and South-east Asia in politics, economy and people-to-people connections. 

As President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has reportedly confirmed his attendance, how he will seize this opportunity to boost Indonesian foreign policy activism at the presidential level remains to be seen. The venue is slated for the same estate where Mr Obama hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 and 2014. Mr Obama proposed the informal meeting at the US-Asean Summit in Kuala Lumpur last November, following the successful US-China summits held in informal settings. 

Without doubt the upcoming Sunnylands Summit will be rich in substance. Mr Obama will probably brief his Asean counterparts on the latest development of the 2016 US presidential election. If former secretary of state Hillary Clinton wins the ticket for the Democratic Party and eventually the presidency, Asean leaders would not have to worry about the sustainability of the US commitment to engage Asean, but if the Republican Party wins, the likelihood of Asean to remain central to US foreign policy looks remote. 

President Jokowi's active participation in Sunnylands is pertinent for at least two reasons. First, the summit is a perfect opportunity for him to step up his game in the country's foreign policy. In his first year in office, he missed the opportunity to personally address the UN General Assembly and Sustainable Development Summit in New York in October 2015. President Jokowi also delegated his role in the Asean Summit and East Asian Summit last November to Vice-President Jusuf Kalla. In the climate conference in Paris last December President Jokowi's presence, according to some experts, did not make a difference. Thus, Sunnylands offers President Jokowi an opportunity to re-establish his and Indonesia's commitment to the global community of nations.

Second is the crucial agenda to be discussed in Sunnylands. It is hard not to think that the leaders will ignore key regional issues such as the South China Sea, co-operation to combat terrorism in Southeast Asia and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement. On the South China Sea dispute, Mr Obama will be likely to try to reaffirm support for the Philippines and the freedom of navigation and operation (FONOP). What used to be coral reefs are now artificial islands north of Indonesia's Natuna Islands. The latest developments of three airstrips on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross Reef along with sea walls and docks are proven to be faster than any prediction made. These developments also could send a message that China has maintained a certain degree of control over the contested waters despite the continuous disputes. 

With a recent attack in Jakarta and a threat to blast Kuala Lumpur, South-east Asia has become a hotspot for global terrorism, especially that orchestrated by the Islamic State (IS) movement. The governments and the peoples of South-east Asia cannot let their guards down. Failed attempts will not discourage Bahrun Naim and his associates from carrying out bigger and more destructive attacks as he seeks to establish a regional leadership position within the IS global network. Although President Jokowi seems confident in how Indonesia is fighting terrorism, regional frameworks in intelligence sharing and counterterrorism operations desperately need a boost.

On the TPP, the US president will likely follow up on President Jokowi's statement last November indicating Indonesia's interest in joining the mega trade deal, despite the fact that the US Congress will not vote on the TPP until after the 2016 elections. Academics and policymakers alike should maximize this time window to formulate Indonesia's position about the TPP. In the meantime, President Jokowi should also look outside of Indonesia regarding the TPP. Instead of solely focusing on how Vietnam increases its market access under the TPP and newly agreed Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with the European Union, President Jokowi should ask Prime Minister Najib Razak why Malaysia has an opt-out clause in the TPP. 

The Sunnylands Summit gives President Jokowi another chance to raise his foreign policy profile and prove Indonesia's leadership role in Asean. This summit will not only be about the President's usual investment promotion talk, but also about foreign policy issues. Since President Jokowi has decided to go, he and his foreign policy advisers need to best prepare for several scenarios on how the summit could play out, especially because increasing Indonesia's global presence and maritime doctrine are on the President's agenda. It would not only be worth considering but also prudent if President Jokowi would solicit advice from foreign policy experts and eminent persons within and beyond his administration. President Jokowi's predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, could be in the list.

As leader of Asean's biggest nation, President Jokowi needs to internalise before leaving for Sunnylands the key geographical fact that Asean is now caught in the middle of competing US and Chinese influence in the region. Washington and Beijing are on different footing on the South China Sea and TPP. Nevertheless, President Jokowi has surprised many skeptics on how fast he learned foreign affairs, according to one senior journalist in a discussion organised by the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) a few months ago. What makes him distinct from his predecessors is his focus on grounded foreign policy. 

Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi adeptly translated this vision into a focus to protect Indonesians abroad. This new character of Indonesian foreign policy is pertinent in the Sunnylands Summit as leaders tend to overlook the people-to-people connection in foreign affairs. President Jokowi can promote Indonesia's people-to-people diplomacy, especially under track two, as part of his agenda at the summit.


The writer is program director at the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI). He graduated from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC.