Indonesia Shows Leadership at G20 Bali Summit

It was the first G20 Summit since Russia launched its attack on Ukraine.

By Masafumi Ishii


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It was the first G20 Summit since Russia launched its attack on Ukraine. Immediately after the invasion, the countries showed divided reactions to the UN resolution. What made them agree on a leaders’ declaration this time?

On November 15 and 16 in Bali, Indonesia, the 2022 G20 Summit was held. Under the theme, “Recover Together, Recover Stronger,” the leaders discussed issues including food and energy security, global health, and digital transformation (DX). Yet, the focus was on how the G20 nations that were not always aligned in the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, could or could not come up with an agreed message.

In that respect, we should highly appreciate the G20’s success in producing a leader’s declaration. As for the details, while showing considerations for the various positions of the G20 countries, it includes statements by the member nations condemning Russia’s aggression and demanding immediate and unconditional withdrawal, and thoroughly refers to the enormous human and economic damage from the war, and the rejection to use or threat to use nuclear weapons. Then, the declaration also stated the importance of macroeconomic stability and addressing food and energy issues, outlining specific actions.

Since the leaders’ declaration is the consensus of the G20 members, there is no helping ambiguous expressions and stating both sides of the opinions. And Russia’s position cannot be ignored. Yet overall, the statement makes clear that Russia’s conduct is wrong, and I believe it resulted in a declaration close to what the Western countries wanted.

Neither the UN nor the G7

When we look at the G20 Bali Summit from the point of global governance, there were several notable features.

The first thing I must point out is the G20’s in-between status, being neither the UN nor the G7. With 193 member states, the UN has overwhelming legitimacy in its decisions and actions. Yet, because of its sheer divergence, and because of the veto power of the permanent members of the Security Council, it is not designed for efficient actions. The G7 is on the opposite end. Since it is seven countries plus the EU, the legitimacy is low, but the highly homogenous group can take brisk actions, and is capable of breakthroughs. While the UN could not take effective actions on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it was the G7 that showed its presence by launching a succession of support measures for Ukraine and sanctions on Russia. However, the international community did not exactly go along with the G7. The war is ongoing, and the world is still divided.

The G20 is a group standing midway between the UN and the G7. Consequently, it can end up getting the worst of both with “low legitimacy and no breakthrough power.” The constituent countries include G7 members and like-minded nations, and BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) members, so it seems to contain the core elements of the UN political divide. In economic terms, the advanced countries have different interests from the emerging countries that are suffering direct damage from the food and energy crisis. Being a microcosm of the global divide, it is difficult for the G20 to announce a certain direction. So, honestly speaking, I did not have high expectations for the Bali Summit. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise when Indonesia succeeded in coming up with the leaders’ declaration.

Second, with a certain agreement reached among the core players of the UN divide, next, it may become a momentum to extend it to the UN. The consensus building at the G20 promotes the consensus building in a bigger arena. It made me realize its positive role.

The Presence of the “Superpowers in the 2030s”

Third, for putting together the leaders’ declaration this time, the collaboration between the current G20 host Indonesia and its successor India was visible. The behaviors of these two countries contributed to paving the way to produce a joint declaration, and their leadership is worthy of applause.

I was reminded that these two countries are becoming increasingly influential as the “next superpower candidates.” As you know, India has overtaken China and became the most populous country in 2022. With a large youth population, and the demographic dividend continuing until the 2040s, India will overtake Japan around the mid-2030s to be the third largest economy by GDP. Some call the current situation as the “U.S.-China G2 era,” but there is no such thing. In the future, there could be a G3, including India, in the 2030s. Then, supposing a “G7” is created based on the influence on the international community, I guess it would be the G3 plus Japan, Indonesia, the EU, and Russia. By GDP, Indonesia will rank around fifth or sixth in the 2030s. At some point in the 2040s, it is expected to surpass Japan and become the fourth largest economy.

If the confrontation between the Japan-U.S.-EU camp and the China-Russia camp will continue in the 2030s, then India and Indonesia will be in between. The two are great powers, do not have alliances with any country, and one of the few countries that can act in their best interests, so in a way they hold the casting vote.

Looking back on the Bali Summit on this backdrop, we realize that the G20 presidency Indonesia and the next presidency, India, demonstrated leadership through cooperation. Also, the U.S., China, and Russia were considerate of the host country. To successfully come up with a leaders’ declaration, it was vital China did not make such a strong case, or at least did not become a centrifugal force. By itself, there was not much Russia could do.

For Japan, it was good to be able to work together with Indonesia and India to produce the declaration, since they could not take aligned action immediately after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Of course, this does not mark a change in their course to cooperating with the West. But it was a meeting that provided a shared experience of good practice, like a preliminary drill, while foreseeing how the international order should be in the 2030s.

Also Vital as Bilateral Partner

This Bali Summit also became an opportunity for Japan to reconfirm the importance of Indonesia as a partner.

Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been conducting public polls in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries since around 2008. To the question asking which country will become more important partner in the future, in three countries, Japan is always ranked above China in the poll results. They are Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. I call them the “Big Three”—all are populous nations while being one of the few countries that are likely to rely on Japan at a time of contingency.

The ASEAN countries implement omnidirectional diplomacy during peacetime and want to maintain friendly relations with both the U.S. and China when the opportunity arises. Yet, they have thoroughly considered what positions and actions to take at times of a contingency, and the response will vary widely among them.

For example, as seen in the Indonesian navy’s response to China’s pressure on the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea, these three countries do not bend to pressure, but are willing and capable of responding with a resolute attitude by seeking the power of countries outside the region like the U.S. or Japan. The middle-power countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and Myanmar have swaying positions depending on the administration. Singapore is rather unique—if you ask the people, they will all say, “China is reliable,” since the country actively accepts Chinese nationals. Yet, Singapore has been hosting the U.S. Airforce and Navy since the 1990s, and the Singapore Armed Forces conduct exercises in Taiwan and Australia.

The foundation of Japan’s foreign policy is to focus on ASEAN as a whole. Yet, when anticipating various contingencies, including Taiwan, strengthening bilateral relations is also essential. Supposing there is a blockade in the Strait of Malacca, Japan will be relying significantly on Indonesia for the sea lanes. The country is a key player in terms of stability of the Indo-Pacific, and the U.S. is recently focusing on supporting Indonesia’s capacity development for drone equipment and operations. Japan has also long provided support for its coast guards.

As a key player in the region, Indonesia’s presence will grow further in the future. By encouraging U.S. and other involvement, Japan will not only provide practical cooperation but also continue to strengthen diplomatic ties. Indonesia’s existence will become an ever more important element in Japan’s foreign affairs.

Face-to-Face Summit Is Back

Lastly, although this is not about the Bali Summit, a series of international conferences involving Japan were held in Southeast Asia, including the ASEAN-related Summit (Cambodia), G20 (Indonesia), and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit (Thailand), and there were many related summit meetings. President Biden’s first in-person summit with China is said to have lasted over three hours. The situation will not change dramatically with this one meeting. But managing issues through direct talks is a vital function of a summit. Even in the case of the Taiwan Strait crisis, it is important that the U.S. deterrence intentions and capabilities are correctly conveyed to the Chinese side. Especially with China, the message directly reaching the top makes all the difference. It is the same with Japan. At the first face-to-face Japan-China Summit in three years, Prime Minister Kishida and President Xi shook hands in a relaxed atmosphere. I am so glad that the head of states can meet in person again.

Prior to this, the Japan-South Korea Summit also attracted attention. It was the behind-the-scenes efforts by both countries to improve relations that contributed most to holding the meeting. But I also felt the meetings at the venue, held in the order of Japan-U.S., U.S.-South Korea, Japan-South Korea-U.S., then Japan-South Korea, were well thought out. I think it showed the intention of building a Japan-U.S.-South Korea collaboration with the U.S. playing a pivotal role.

(Composition by Gaiko editorial desk)

This is a translation of the Japanese article published in vol. 76 of the Gaiko (Diplomacy) magazine.

Masafumi Ishii is a special adjunct professor at Gakushuin University since 2021. After graduating from the University of Tokyo in 1980, he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and served as the Minister to the U.K., Minister to the U.S., Director-General for Global Issues, Director-General for International Legal Affairs, Ambassador to Belgium/NATO, and Ambassador to Indonesia from 2017 to 2020.


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