Fence-Sitting Indonesia Hosts G20 Summit While Eyeing Ukraine and National Politics
For the Jokowi administration, Indonesia’s G20 presidency is a perfect opportunity for strengthening its domestic political base. With strong public rejection towards the G7-led anti-Russia coalition, can it pave the way for a summit with both the U.S. and Russia attending? The outcome will also affect the course of national politics in the future.
In late April, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida kicked off his visits to Southeast Asia and Europe from Indonesia. He held a meeting in person with President Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi), who was to host the summit in November as the presidency of the G20. The joint statement gained international attention, with the focus on how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be mentioned. After the meeting, Jokowi told reporters, “The Ukraine war must be stopped immediately and we agree to create a conducive situation so that negotiations and a peaceful solution can be reached quickly.”
To this diplomatic stance by Jakarta, there are strong calls demanding a more aligned approach among the G7 nations. Although agreeing to the March 2 UN General Assembly resolution to denounce Russia, Indonesia abstained in the April 7 voting to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. Western nations are irritated with Indonesia that does not conform in sanctions against Russia, nor clearly criticize Moscow.
The media and diplomacy watchers tend to picture the situation as the G20 presidency Indonesia caught between a dilemma—G7 leaders claiming to boycott the summit if Putin will attend, and China and India opposing Jakarta has no right to reject Russia. Yet, that is a superficial take. Why does not Indonesia under Jokowi join the anti-Russia coalition? How does it see the Ukraine crisis? The key to interpreting the situation lies in the domestic political dynamics. To maximize his political capital, Jokowi is deploying a diplomacy that does not commit to either Russia or the U.S. Rather than a passive dilemma of “caught between major powers,” it reflects a political strategy of its own initiative.
G20 for Boosting Support for Administration
Unlike Japan, surrounded by hostile nuclear powers and has the Japan-U.S. alliance as the foreign policy base, Indonesia has little military threats nearby, and has no alliances with any major power. Rather, it has deep-rooted skepticism towards superpowers. That is the firmly ingrained lessons it learned from history, which date back to the late 1950s when the U.S. supported the separatist movements, or when China exerted influence on President Sukarno’s politics through the Indonesian Communist Party. Even recently, at the 1999 referendum on East Timor’s independence, the U.S. denounced the Indonesian army’s violence and imposed an arms embargo. Such experiences from the past have instilled the distrust that “major powers will betray you.” This does not mean anti-U.S. or anti-China. Instead, it is a diplomatic intuition to keep a distance and ensure strategic autonomy.
Therefore, the distance with major powers will change with Jakarta’s priorities. If the issue is suppressing regional conflicts, it tries to gain U.S. support. Or, if infrastructure businesses and resource development become the immediate concern, it will approach countries like China and Russia. This is Indonesia’s strategic thinking, and the mainstream elites on foreign affairs serving Jokowi have contributed to its practice, as a group with realistic views on international relations and an emphasis on pragmatic negotiations.
This strategic standpoint is also reflected in how Indonesia responds to the Ukraine crisis. Jokowi asked the Ukrainian finance minister to join the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors Meeting held in late April 2022. On April 27, he held a phone conference with President Zelensky and invited him to the November G20 summit. The following day, he phoned Putin and urged Russia to attend. U.S. President Biden maintains the stance that he welcomes Zelensky’s attendance but will not approve of Putin coming. For Jokowi, instead of a passive diplomacy, generating this situation precisely enables the staging of an active and independent diplomacy that claims, “no dialogue, no end of war.”
In the six months until the meeting, by patiently persuading the G20 nations about the significance of having Ukraine and Russia attend the summit, Jokowi will appeal his diplomatic leadership. For him, it is essential the G20 will not be divided and no members will boycott the summit. Conversely, if boycotts are declared early on, it will affect various G20 events already underway. Just including the related events, almost 160 international conferences are planned across Indonesia, with over 20,000 guests from abroad. The economic impact is enormous, expected to jump-start the tourism industry that had suffered the blow from the COVID pandemic, create 700,000 new jobs, and contribute to roughly 500 million USD in GDP. The business elites close to Jokowi will never want to miss this business opportunity.
If Jokowi can lead this massive international event to a success and gather momentum for an economic rebound from the COVID depression, Indonesians would give him credit. Many of his domestic policies in recent years had triggered the public’s mistrust, and mass demonstrations have been held almost every year since 2019 over anti-corruption law, job-creation law, and capital relocation. Under these circumstances, he has a strong motivation to aggressively use diplomatic policies to boost public support.
The Ordeal of a President Bolstered by Public Opinion
Jokowi is sensitive to public opinion. He is not a leader of a political party or influential social organizations, but has enjoyed high approval ratings, and with public support, maintained his political unifying power. When I interviewed him before he became the president, Jokowi talked elatedly about the results of various polls. Now, how does the public opinion see the Ukraine crisis? Pollster SMRC (Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting), trusted for its accurate surveys, released an interesting poll result in mid-April. About 70 percent of the respondents knew about the war in Ukraine, of which 17 percent answered that Russia is responsible, while 23 percent said it was NATO. And when asked, between Ukraine or Russia, which should Indonesia protect, 12 percent replied Ukraine, 13 percent chose Russia, and 43 percent said Indonesia should remain neutral without supporting either. The social media is teeming with radical criticisms of NATO, and the poll seems to reflect the cyber-space influence.
The double standards by the West are a frequently discussed topic on the internet. The prevalent narrative goes like this: while the West does not provide arms aid to Palestine nor impose economic sanctions on Israel, it is proactive regarding Ukraine and Russia and demands us to go along; this is unacceptable for Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population. There are also widespread recognitions such as, “Since Ukraine joined the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, it is the enemy of Islam,” and “The U.S. has no justice, unilaterally changing the status quo by attacking Iraq with the excuse of weapons of mass destruction.” Of course, that is not the heart of the discussion, and there are media and intellectuals claiming any unprovoked and unjustified attacks are unacceptable and, for now, Indonesia should join the international coalition to save the lives of the Ukrainian people. But these are minorities among the public opinion.
Some of this likely derives from the local major media’s nature for reporting. Since many lack their own correspondents and rely on news from the Western world, the information is often believed to be biased. Also, area studies of Russia and Eastern Europe are weak among academics, with very few researchers. The commentators on the media are all experts in international politics, and the discussions tend to focus on power relations among great nations.
In this climate, what would happen if Jokowi showed a sympathetic attitude towards G7 and joined the anti-Russia coalition? No doubt, he would be labeled a stooge of the West and distrust of Jokowi will ripple across the public. The booster effect to support the administration would also fail, inducing him to become a lame duck. His presidential term is until 2024, so if the administration becomes unstable now, the ruling coalition will lose unifying power, and start looking for a leader unlike Jokowi for the next presidential election. Expectations for a strong leader that will not give in to foreign pressure will develop into calls for a strongman.
The Minister of Defense Prabowo Subianto is the closest to this image. He is a former army general, and despite losing twice in past presidential elections, he has been a top contender in various polls for the next presidential candidate. Unlike Jokowi, whose selling point is “the people’s president,” Prabowo has presented himself as a macho tough guy, “the Putin of Indonesia.” Thus, depending on the diplomatic developments ahead, Jokowi will face a critical crossroads—maintaining the grip on domestic politics or becoming a lame duck. The latter scenario would make Prabowo more popular in leading to the presidential election in February 2024. That outlook is not so good for democracy in Indonesia. Prabowo is married to the daughter of the former President Suharto, a legacy from the dictatorship era. In the neighboring Philippines, 36 years after the fall of the Marcos’ autocracy, the former dictator’s son won the presidential election. Two years from now, if Suharto’s son-in-law gains the presidency, Southeast Asia may see another “authoritarian nostalgia.”
Jokowi’s G20 diplomacy balances on these dynamics of national politics, and how well or bad he handles this will impact not only the Ukraine crisis outlook but also the administration’s footing and democracy in Indonesia. Upon this understanding, Japan should strengthen collaborations with Jokowi.
This is a translation of the Japanese original published in Vol. 73 May/Jun. 2022 of the Gaiko (Diplomacy) magazine.
Jun Honna earned a Ph.D. at the Australian National University in 1999 and is currently a professor at the Ritsumeikan University. He specializes in Indonesian politics and international affairs of Southeast Asia. He is the author of books including Minshuka no paradokkusu: indoneshia ni miru ajia seiji no shinso (“Paradox of Democratization: Asian Politics Viewed from Indonesia,” in Japanese).