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Indonesia’s year of diplomatic triumph loses a little of its gloss

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Indonesian President Joko Widodo plants a tree at the Taman Hutan Raya Ngurah Rai Mangrove Forest, on the sidelines of the G20 summit meeting, 16 November 2022, in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia (Photo: Reuters/Alex Brandon).

In Brief

The G20 presidency in 2022 presented diplomatic and substantial challenges that threatened to blow the forum apart, or at least to semi-permanently incapacitate it. That Indonesia hosted a successful summit and passed leadership of the forum on to India in good working order was a diplomatic triumph for Indonesia’s leadership and significantly elevated the country’s standing on the global stage.


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Despite its size and political weight — as the third-biggest democracy in the world, an emerging economy that is likely to be among the four biggest in the world within a few decades and its political leverage in Asia through ASEAN — few credited Indonesia with the capacity bring it off, in part a product of post-colonial prejudice, in part a product of ignorance about just where Indonesia is at in the world today.

Events were certainly stacked against a successful G20 summit last year. On top of the COVID-19 crisis, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sharply aggravated growing geopolitical tensions and the fragmentation of the world economy. The US trade and technology war with China signalled the acceleration of protectionism and international ‘decoupling’.

Recovery from the COVID-19 shock, the economic consequences of the Ukraine war, the steady deterioration of multilateral governance and the long-term spectre of climate change were all major challenges in their own right but, because they came at once and fed upon each other, needed vastly more effective global cooperation if they were to be managed with any measure of success.

The environment for international cooperation could not have been more toxic.

Without Indonesian convening power, it’s doubtful that there would have been a G20 summit at all in 2022.

That convening power derived from Indonesia’s status as a leader in the developing world, its central role in ASEAN and East Asia, its basic commitment to open, outward-looking development despite spasms of economic nationalism, its non-alignment to any of the big powers and its standing among world democracies. And Indonesia’s leadership team demonstrated that it had the mettle to wring every ounce of influence it could not just to hosting the meeting but delivering a credible measure of success.

The stakes were high. Not only was Indonesia’s emergent leadership role on the world stage on the line along with President Joko Widodo’s legacy, but also the viability of the G20 as a platform for coordinating the global economic recovery from the pandemic and managing global economic and other problems.

President Widodo and his ‘gang of four’ ministerial advisors from finance, trade, foreign affairs and the central bank made a huge political bet on the success of the G20 summit — knowing that failure would have been judged harshly by the Indonesian public, to whom the government had eagerly sold a success story in the lead up to the event, and by the international community, who would have delivered its own ruthless judgment on Indonesia’s frailties.

Jakarta’s gamble paid off: the G20 outperformed expectations, although the challenges facing global multilateralism remain. The Bali summit, against the odds, consolidated the G20’s self-designation as ‘the premier forum for global economic cooperation’.

Not only was Indonesia’s G20 high-wire G20 diplomacy a significant success in 2022, but its economy bounced back unexpectedly strongly from the pandemic. The World Bank predicts that the economy will enjoy a respectable annual GDP growth of 5.2 per cent for the full year.

But the Indonesian parliament’s enactment of a controversial new criminal code on 2 December revealed the jarring realities of domestic politics and took some of the shine off Indonesia’s year in the international sun.

As Liam Gammon explains in this week’s lead essay, ‘[t]he code satisfies a range of conservative agendas: from Islamists’ desire to police morality to the obsession of bureaucrats and nationalist politicians with protecting the “dignity” of the state and its officials.’

The flip side of Indonesia’s economic and geopolitical weight is that it also presents as part of a global trend of declining democratic quality. ‘A post-Jokowi reversal of regressive political trends doesn’t seem likely either’, notes Gammon. ‘Barring any radical constitutional change ahead of 2024, Indonesia’s democracy remains safe— albeit weaker and more illiberal, where dissent is anathematised and the rights of unpopular minorities, such as LGBT people, are subject to the whims of the majority.’ Contrary to some reporting, the new criminal code doesn’t explicitly ban same-sex relations but, with social conservatism on the front foot, such a ban could still come.

‘As Indonesia’s democracy displays its more illiberal face, the rhetoric of shared democratic values is a declining currency’, Gammon says.

As dismaying as these trends may appear, they should not distract from what’s at stake in engaging and backing up Indonesia’s emergent regional leadership role.

For Australia, where many see the country’s liberal democratic tradition as fundamental to its identity at home and on the world stage, the increasing congruence of its economic and strategic interests with those of Indonesia and its largely undemocratic neighbours in the region — in defending and husbanding a multilateral, open, rules-based economic order and resisting the entrenchment of cold war thinking and dynamics in Asia — is a reminder of the necessity for equanimity in the face of political realities Australian policymakers can’t change any time soon.

Such equanimity in the face of Indonesia’s conservative backsliding ought to inform how the bilateral relationship is framed politically in Australia. ‘Downplaying values and playing up interests doesn’t just mean interests in the sense of what Australia can achieve in Indonesia, commercially or otherwise’, says Gammon. ‘It means focusing instead on what Australia can achieve with Indonesia, as a fellow middle power with overlapping interests in respecting and reinforcing the rules of global trade and pursuing multilateral cooperation on transnational policy challenges’.

Indonesia, with all its foibles, is the Southeast Asian heavyweight and a global partner — as it proved so resoundingly in 2022 — with whom Australian leaders must now engage more than ever to forge a region that remains congenial to common economic, political and security interests.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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