Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, after scoring key commitments during his recent overseas trip, appears to be seeking to expand the country’s role in international affairs as it prepares to assume leadership positions in strategic multilateral forums in the coming years.
In December, Indonesia will begin its year-long presidency of the Group of 20 (G20), during which it will host 150 meetings throughout the country, ending with an international summit in Bali next year. The country is also making preparations to serve as chair of ASEAN in 2023.
Jokowi has long been criticised for delegating most diplomatic work to his ministers and focusing predominantly on domestic issues, but his attendance at a recent string of high-profile global events has contradicted that impression.
“There was something that I felt was different from previous summits. There were so many requests for bilateral meetings from other countries who were present,” the president said in a speech on November 11. “I was approached by leaders, both when I was standing and when I was sitting, and they were from big countries.”
On the sidelines of the G20 summit and the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), Jokowi met with leaders from the US, Australia, France, Turkey, India and the UK, among other countries.
He said Indonesia had the opportunity to use its strategic position as G20 president, as well as ASEAN chair the following year, to advance its national interests.
“Indonesia is a big country with a big history, and we really want to use this once again to influence world policies in any way,” he added, lamenting that despite its stature, the country was underestimated by its own people.
In the G20 summit in Italian capital Rome last month, Jokowi symbolically accepted the presidency of the group and said that in the role, Indonesia would encourage joint efforts for global economic recovery under the theme of “recover together, recover stronger”.
After the G20 summit, Jokowi attended COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, the UK, where he claimed Indonesia was committed to mitigating climate change through forestry and land use and making the sector a net carbon sink by 2030.
But that commitment came under question after the country appeared to backtrack from a pledge it had signed at the summit to end deforestation by 2030. Minister of Environment and Forestry Siti Nurbaya Bakar said Indonesia’s development agenda “should not be stopped for the sake of reducing carbon emissions or deforestation”.
The ministry later said it would implement a policy of “sustainable forest management”, which included minimising – not stopping – deforestation and forest fires.
To round out the trip, Jokowi visited the UAE, whose diplomatic and financial connections with Indonesia have grown under his leadership. Indonesia has secured $44.6 billion in investment commitments from UAE businesses.
Lowy Institute Southeast Asia Programme director Ben Bland said Jokowi, during his seven years in office, had become more assured on the international stage and had cemented his status as the most dynamic leader to have emerged in Southeast Asia in the last decade.
The president appeared, Bland noted, to be using growing international interest in Indonesia to support his agenda at home.
“He still remains focused on leveraging the growing external interest in Indonesia to support his core economic development objectives,” said Bland. “That was clear from the domestic messaging around Indonesia’s signing of the zero-deforestation pledge at COP26, which was designed to reassure Indonesians that Jokowi still puts large-scale development above all else.”
Teuku Rezasyah of Padjadjaran University concurred that the president’s domestic agenda was among his highest priorities, noting that Jokowi had chosen to travel internationally only after seeing that the domestic Covid-19 situation was under some amount of control.
He said the president would leave a strong legacy if he managed to deliver on his international promises and priorities.
“This momentum must be maintained through domestic stability and through optimising regional and global bilateral cooperation, lest what he says contradicts domestic practice,” Teuku said.
THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK