Indonesia: The Lion that Meowed
Jakarta’s place at the Group of 20 Nations looks like a blown opportunity for leadership
Indonesia appears to be passing up an opportunity to make its mark on the world. Its typically flaccid diplomacy has yet to seize on its presidency this year of the Group of 20 most economically important nations to take any initiative on the most critical currently facing the globe – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24 and which looks in danger of reducing the entire country to rubble.
Meanwhile, President Joko Widodo aspires to be an international figure representing a huge and also democratic nation, but seems to have little idea how to go about making his mark.
The G20 may be focused on economic, not political issues, but there can be no doubt that Russia’s actions are threatening at least as much global economic damage as the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet a look at Indonesia’s presentation of itself via the G20 website displays a list of minor issues leading to the summit in Bali in November, itself as much a tourism promotion exercise as anything more meaningful for the nation’s place in the world.
"If Indonesia wants to be a global power, then it has to act like it,” said a Jakarta-based western businessman. “Ukraine is just the latest case but if Jakarta is going to hide its head in the sand while it’s in the president's chair of the G20, it speaks volumes about its inability to take a serious role in world and even Asian affairs."
While Indonesia did, like its neighbors Singapore and the Philippines, vote in favor of the UN resolution criticizing Russia, it has made no attempt to use its position to rally the majority of G20 members to take a stand on an invasion which threatens to disrupt not only trade in key commodities such as wheat, gas, and nickel but to lead to breakdowns in supply chains serving a wide variety of industries including computer chips vital to so many industries and in short supply even before the Russian action. Russia supplies the European Union with 40 percent of its natural gas, 27 percent of its oil imports, and 40 percent of its coal imports. With Ukraine, it exports – or did – a third of the world’s grains. Disruption of these supplies will wreak enormous economic danger to the world.
Indonesian policymakers need to understand that being a big country sometimes means having to make uncomfortable choices in international affairs. The attitude of trying to be nice to everyone simply does not make sense whether in approaching the Ukraine situation, let alone in protecting its own seas and exclusive economic zone resources from another expansionist power. For a long time, Indonesia has coasted along seeing itself as the de facto leader of Asean simply on account of its size and role in the group’s formation in 1967. The fact that the regional grouping is a spent force in international affairs is at least in part due to Indonesia’s reticence.
Now that Jakarta is at the world’s top table, the only member from Southeast Asia with 600 million people, nations mostly highly dependent on international trade and hence of international rules, it has a duty to act accordingly. Otherwise, its claims to importance are no more than a tourist brochure.
Some other countries in Asia, notably India and Vietnam, have been reluctant to criticize Russian aggression whether because of historical links or, more likely, their dependence on Russian arms to help them defend themselves against China’s aims of regional dominance. Indonesia faces no such conflict of interest or reason to cede principles to self-interest. Its military has little Russian equipment, and Russia is insignificant in trade and investment.
Indonesia also has good relations with Turkey, a fellow secular but predominantly Muslim state and member of the G20. The Turks need no reminding of past Russian expansionism on the north and east of the Black Sea and its attempts to control Black Sea trade and its own access to the Mediterranean. Ukraine has already found its sea access blocked by Russia, a disruption to global food trade as well as to Ukraine itself. As the world’s second largest wheat importer, self-interest alone suggests Indonesia needs to use its G 20 position to play an active role. Wheat is also a key import for the Philippines and Bangladesh. Likewise, almost every country east of Iran is heavily reliant on imported hydrocarbons.
As a large but non-nuclear state, Indonesia has a role in isolating the aggression of a big, nuclear-armed nation against a smaller one which traded its nuclear weapons for international promises of security. If the Russians play this game, China can seize its smaller, non-nuclear neighbors anytime it wants. Meanwhile, the Ukraine example will surely lead to more small and medium powers seeing nuclear weapons as their best defense. Non-proliferation will be dead.
Non-alignment today does not mean non-involvement just as it did not mean doing nothing in the 1960s and 70s in the face of imperialisms of various kinds. The future of the world should lie with what are now middle powers, not old empires trying to survive or re-create themselves. Ukraine’s desire to pursue its own path of relationships rather than accept Russian hegemony is precisely what countries such as Indonesia need to defend, not as support for the EU and NATO but as end in itself.
Even if the Ukraine war doesn’t turn out as destructive as currently feared, it follows in an even more destructive form the “punishment” inflicted by would-be boss power China on Vietnam with its invasion in 1979 for daring to stand against Beijing’s assumptions that its neighbors should be tributaries.
With India caught between competing interests, with Russia on one side and its informal Quad links with the US, Japan, and Australia on the other, Indonesia is doubly well-equipped to use its G20 position to represent broad Asian and also non-nuclear middle power interests as well as the principles of world order. It is able to do so because it has a president who was elected and, whatever his faults, is neither a megalomaniac, kleptomaniac, nor owes his position to his parents. Indeed, he has some things in common with Ukraine’s embattled President Zelenskyy.
Jokowi may still be basking in the glow of getting his new capital project, Nusantara, off the ground but that will do nothing, at least for a decade, to raise Indonesia’s status in the world. It has not always had such an insignificant role. President Sukarno, ably assisted by foreign minister Subandrio and Ruslan Abdulgani, organized the 1955 Bandung Conference of Afro-Asian nations, which saw the birth of the non-aligned movement whose leaders included Yugoslavia’s (Communist) President Tito as much an opponent of Soviet Russian imperialism as was Sukarno of European imperialism.
That was followed in 1957 by Indonesia’s then-revolutionary Declaration of Sovereignty over the seas connecting its islands eventually led after decades of effort to the acceptance of the archipelagic principle now enshrined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. That owed much to the efforts of two foreign ministry officials, Hasjim Djalal and Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, the latter foreign minister for a decade under Suharto. It is time for Indonesia today to stop hiding behind Mr. Nice Guy platitudes and follow such bold examples. It is your time, President Widodo, to step up.