Asia’s reluctant diplomat
Indonesian president Joko Widodo is struggling to unify the G20 group of nations, whose leaders are due to meet in Bali in November. At home, meanwhile, Widodo’s popularity has taken a hit for domestic reasons, as Nicholas Nugent praises the dignity of the event, and also highlights certain political elements at play
When G20 foreign ministers met in Bali in July this year, a precursor to the November summit, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov stormed out after what US Secretary of State described as ‘a barrage of Western criticism’ over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
No final communique was issued after the meeting, which had been due to discuss sustainable energy, global health and digital transformation, topics chosen by the Indonesian president Joko Widodo – popularly known as Jokowi –for his year as G20 chairman.
Now there are fears that the summit itself, due to be held in Bali in mid-November, may be undermined by tensions caused by events in Europe.
The G20 – or group of 20 – was established in 1999 as an economic discussion forum linking the world’s major economies, which together generate more than 80 per cent of global GDP. It comprises the economic heavyweights of the US, UK, Japan, Canada, Germany, France and Italy – who also meet as the G7 – plus the next ranking BRICS economies, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. (Russia was expelled from the more exclusive group, then known as the G8, after it annexed Crimea in 2014.)
Also in the wider grouping are Argentina, Australia, South Korea, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the European Union.
President Widodo has been working hard to get member countries to commit to attending the November summit, in a role that has seen him acting as a mediator between Ukraine – which is not a G20 member but has been invited to participate by the Indonesian president – and Russia. Widodo visited both Kiev and Moscow in June.
The Russian president Vladimir Putin has told Widodo that he plans to attend the November summit.
Since the invasion, Putin has hardly travelled outside Russia, but did go to Samarkand, Uzbekistan in September for a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Also at that gathering was the Chinese president Xi Jinping, on his first visit outside China since the start of the Covid pandemic.
A meeting between the Chinese and Russian leaders revealed limits to the support China is offering Russia. It is clear, for example, that China will not support Russia with arms, which many western nations have been providing to Ukraine.
It seems that Xi, who before the Ukraine invasion said there were ‘no limits’ to the bonds connecting China and Russia, now finds himself sitting on an uncomfortable fence. He doesn’t want to criticise Putin’s war publicly but appears to feel that support for the Russian leader is damaging China’s own international standing.
Other leaders Putin may have regarded as ‘friends’ also showed less support than hemight have expected. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, called for an early cessation of hostilities and ‘dialogue and diplomacy’, while President Erdogan of Turkey, another would-be mediator, called for ‘a dignified end to the war’.
But days later, Putin made clear he was not about to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Rather, he called out 300,000 Russian reservists to join the battle.
The Bali G20 summit is the most important international forum since the invasion of Ukraine in February divided the world. It was expected that President Widodo would use September’s United Nations General Assembly in New York to make his own call for an end to the war. Instead he chose not to attend, following a pattern since he was elected president in 2014.
If Russia’s President Putin goes to Bali in November, it is unlikely that western leaders such as President Biden will attend – although Britain’s new prime minister, Liz Truss, has said she does plan to attend and to confront Putin directly about the invasion of Ukraine. However, she may come under pressure to stay away.
Widodo’s visits to Kiev and Moscow were considered out of character for a president who is more comfortable focusing on domestic affairs, notably growing the Indonesian economy. The former businessman from central Java aims to lift Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, to become one of the top ten global economies before he leaves office in two years. It is currently in 16th position.
Former UN representative in Indonesia Stephen Woodhouse believes preoccupations at home have ‘reduced his ability to achieve gains in the international arena’. Domestic issues including inflation and a reduction in the petrol subsidy, the rise of ‘hard’ Islam and recent evidence of corruption among the police have all had an impact on Widodo’s popularity.
There are concerns, too, says Woodhouse, over the extent to which Indonesia has become indebted to China in its drive to grow the economy, as China has invested a great deal into the development of Indonesia’s infrastructure.
In that context, Widodo’s Beijing visit to meet President Xi Jinping – who has allegedly committed himself to attending the Bali Summit in July – was more in character.
President Widodo does not have long to reach his economic target, nor to achieve another ambition: to build his country a new capital city on the island of Borneo. The existing capital of Jakarta, with its population of 30 million, is sinking several centimetres a year into the Java Sea.
The proposed new capital, already named Nusantara (meaning ‘archipelago’ in the Indonesian language), would, he hopes, provide balance in this ‘top heavy’ nation of nearly 15,000 islands, the majority of whose inhabitants are concentrated in Java. The cost of building the new city has been put at over US$30 billion, which will only be realisable with outside help.
Before Widodo ends his second and final term as president of Southeast Asia’s most populous nation in 2024, though, he has another important task ahead as Indonesia assumes the presidency of ASEAN, the Southeast Asian regional organisation – an equally daunting role for Asia’s reluctant diplomat.
He will be expected by fellow heads of state to take a position on the ongoing dispute in the South China Sea, which divides China from several of its near neighbours, and to take a stance on China’s claim to Taiwan.
Top of the list for this new phase of Widodo’s presidency will be to resolve the issue of governance of fellow ASEAN member state Myanmar, whose army usurped the democratically elected government of Aung Sang Suu Kyi in February 2021. Jokowi’s period in the glare of international politics is about to get even hotter.
Nicholas Nugent once lived in Indonesia and has followed its growth into one of East Asia’s so-called ‘tiger’ economies