By: Ernest Z. Bower 


Indonesian President Joko Widodo will make his debut in Washington as head of the world’s fourth-largest country from Oct. 26 to 28. Following recent trips to the US by President Xi Jingping of China and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, the scene is set for Jokowi, as he is universally known, to seize the occasion to tell the world what Indonesia’s role will be and demonstrate his strategic thrust as a leader.

To achieve this goal, his trip will need to be thoughtfully planned and carefully executed. There is a compelling case for him to demonstrate vision and leadership, including conveying an understanding of the political and economic context for his visit.

The world needs an Indonesia with a sense that its time has come, and that it can play a significant role in the Asia-Pacific and global security, economic integration, and foreign policy. To ante up and get in the game, Indonesia can no longer afford to play games with its own economy. Instead, it must recognize that there is a foundational link between economics and security, particularly in Asia.

Pride for Indonesians

Indonesians deserve to be proud of their country’s incredible journey. Indonesia has come a long way since asserting its independence as World War II ended in 1945. Now Indonesia should rightly assert itself again. It should tell its story and define its future in ways that will be historic—if somewhat uncomfortable—for a nation that has long considered itself nonaligned and neutral in global affairs.

For Jokowi, the stakes are high, both domestically and internationally.

A year into his presidency, Jokowi needs his US trip to redefine Jakarta’s strategic narrative. He will want to position himself as a statesman and visionary, in the same league with the leaders of the other largest countries in the world. To do so, he and his team will need to break away from the type of foreign trips he has made so far as leader of Indonesia. His visits to Japan, China, and Singapore earlier this year lacked a consistent strategic focus and were not backed up with real deliverables based on Indonesia’s long-term economic and national security objectives.

Jokowi has the ability to change this pattern. Doing so will help him politically at home and put Indonesia in the right place geopolitically and economically. He can use his stops in New York, Washington, and Silicon Valley to describe his vision for his country’s security and economic well-being.

Jokowi’s election, the first time an Indonesian president was chosen from outside traditional power structures, was expected to be transformational. To date, that has not been the case, and Jokowi’s public approval ratings have dropped to 40 percent from around 70 percent when he took office last October. The economy has slowed to a 4.7 percent growth rate, a significant drop from 6 percent growth when he assumed office.

Stimulus Packages Don’t Work So Far

Jokowi recognizes the need for economic stimulus and reform, but he has yet to find the right formula to unlock Indonesia’s massive potential. Despite his focus on attracting foreign direct investment, successive economic stimulus packages announced over the past month have missed the mark. This is because they are not comprehensive and do not address the core issues, including the need to substantially reduce the negative investment list that restricts foreign investors from certain sectors.

The world’s top investors want to be in Indonesia. They want to understand and align with Jokowi’s vision for building infrastructure, creating jobs, and fueling innovation. Leading US companies are all looking for new growth in Asia outside of China, and Indonesia and India are obvious choices. However, Indonesia’s performance in attracting foreign direct investment has lagged behind its regional competitors. In 2014, foreign investment was only 2.3 percent of Indonesia’s gross domestic product, lagging behind neighboring Malaysia at 4.2 percent and Vietnam at 6 percent.