Indonesia’s president steps on to world stage as G20 host

Getting from Jakarta to Kyiv is not a straightforward journey. Making the trip when Ukraine is a war zone is even more complex.

Yet Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president and host of the G20 summit next week, not only embarked with his wife on an 11-hour overnight train journey to Ukraine’s capital from Poland in the middle of a war to personally deliver an invitation to his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy — he also squeezed in the G7 summit in Germany and a trip to Russia to invite Vladimir Putin to Bali as part of a five-day diplomatic drive this summer.

In office since 2014, “Jokowi”, as he is known in his country, had seldom been seen on the world stage. But his determination to pull off a successful G20 on the tropical holiday island has propelled the former small-town furniture maker, known for his outsider-style politics, away from his customary reticence.

Weeks after the Europe trip, Widodo became the first leader to visit China since the Beijing Winter Olympics, this time to invite president Xi Jinping to the summit. The trip also included stops in Japan and South Korea.

The flurry of diplomatic activity heralded a new era of global participation for the world’s fourth-most populous country.

“Indonesia will come out of this process as a much more astute player in foreign policy,” says Kevin O’Rourke, a Jakarta-based analyst on domestic politics and economics and principal at consultancy Reformasi Information Services.

While Putin this week decided to send his foreign minister in his place, Widodo’s non-confrontational footwork has achieved what pundits said few other leaders could have at a time of war and unprecedented geopolitical tension. Seventeen leaders are expected in the room next week in Bali, after telling Widodo they would be there even if the Russian president was in attendance.

That marked a turnround from the initial weeks following Putin’s invasion, when some western officials suggested banning Russia from the G20 or boycotting the forum if Moscow sent a delegation.

Widodo’s decision to not exclude Putin but to also extend an invitation to Zelenskyy helped convince western leaders. In June, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she opposed “paralysing the entire G20” as a result of the war.

“The G20 is too important, also for developing countries and emerging countries, that we should let this body be broken by Putin,” she said.

But Widodo’s care to not take sides also poses obstacles. “For Indonesia, it will be a nightmare as they don’t want to hurt anybody,” said Christoph Heusgen, chair of the Munich Security Conference. “There is a lot of pressure on the role of the host with regard to managing all the different expectations.”

“And for Indonesia, as a country that has always been proud of being part of the non-aligned group, it’s going to be difficult,” added Heusgen, a foreign and security policy adviser to former German chancellor Angela Merkel from 2005-17 and who has attended multiple G20 summits.

In an interview with the Financial Times this week, Widodo, who is in his second and final term as president, also expressed frustration with the G20 being treated as a political arena instead of an economic and development one.

“The idea that they can somehow separate geopolitics from geoeconomics feels a bit naive,” said one western policymaker.

Others were more blunt. “The Indonesians are really pissed off with us,” said one senior official from a western G20 delegation. “They feel they stood with us at the UN on Russia, but that we’re not allowing the other parts of [Widodo’s] agenda to move through the G20 because of a focus on Russia.”

“We need to focus on the boring stuff,” the western official said, “and not let it all get hijacked by Ukraine.”

Indonesia has highlighted issues such as food security and the creation of a pandemic preparedness fund as summit priorities.

While Widodo’s fastidiousness about not taking sides has served the purpose of getting most member countries to the G20, it also has risks — and may even prove damaging to Indonesia.

“The narrative will be ‘we tried’. But in our effort to not be seen as taking a stand, we are sleepwalking into alignment with China and Russia,” said Evan Laksmana, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore.

Widodo’s headaches echo challenges faced by previous G20 hosts.

At the November 2014 summit in Brisbane, the first after Russia invaded Crimea that February, Putin sulked home a day early after he was harangued by western leaders in bilateral meetings and given the cold shoulder by others.

Five years later in Osaka, then-US president Donald Trump provided a litany of awkward moments, including inserting his daughter Ivanka into meetings with bemused leaders. Trump also praised Putin for being tough on journalists and insulted Germany and his Japanese hosts for relying on the US for defence and security.

Indonesia still hopes the summit can deliver economic benefits — and boost its recovery. Domestically, Bali’s revival is already being seen as a win.

Ultimately, however, the summit’s success will lie in geopolitics. Widodo’s energised foreign politicking has set the scene for a historic meeting and earned Indonesia long-sought global prestige.

But the chances of a joint communiqué at the summit’s conclusion are far from assured. So too is any outcome of a discussion between US president Joe Biden and Xi, their first in-person meeting as leaders, ahead of the summit.

“I think they would love to have conclusions come out . . . This is not in their hands,” said Heusgen. “It is in the hands of the Americans and the Chinese and the Russians.”

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