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About the project

The Southeast Asia Program aims to explain the latest developments in this vital region, inform and influence policymakers, and help build connections across countries and sectors. At a time of intensifying great-power competition in the region, it is more important than ever to understand the diverse nations of Southeast Asia in their own right and how they interact with each other and outside states. We organise regular events, roundtables and online engagements with leading policymakers and experts focusing on Southeast Asia. We also contribute to the Lowy Institute’s core research publications. For example, the latest Lowy Institute Paper was written by our Director, Ben Bland. Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia is the first English biography of President Jokowi and uses his remarkable story to reflect on Indonesia’s development challenges.

Experts

Ben Bland
Director, Southeast Asia Program
Hervé Lemahieu
Director, Asian Power and Diplomacy Program
Roland Rajah
Lead Economist and Director, International Economics Program
Alyssa Leng
Research Associate, Asian Power and Diplomacy Program
Dewi Fortuna Anwar
Nonresident Fellow
Malcolm Cook
Nonresident Fellow
Elina Noor
Nonresident Fellow

Latest publications

The (un)making of Joko Widodo

Book Review: Ben Bland, Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the struggle to remake Indonesia (Penguin, Lowy Institute, 2020)

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, a man once dubbed “a new hope” for democracy, has instead presided over a period of democratic stagnation and regression, according to many scholars of Indonesia. Ben Bland’s new Lowy Institute Paper Man of Contradictions attempts to unpack how the affable everyman persona of “Jokowi” has given way to a more calculating, transactional leader, by bringing together contemporary academic debates and the author’s own insights into Jokowi’s Indonesia. The result is a compact, compelling narrative that serves as an accessible entry-point for policy makers and observers to understand Jokowi’s rise from small town mayor to president of the world’s largest Muslim country.

Bland’s account of Jokowi’s authoritarian turn is simple but not necessarily simplistic. It goes beyond looking just at Jokowi’s leadership style by also considering underlying structural causes, such as what he calls “the original sin of reformasi”.

“The price of a mostly smooth and peaceful transition”, Bland writes, “has been to leave Suharto-era figures and institutions with a seat at the table”.

Indeed, as Edward Aspinall argued back in 2010, the irony of Indonesia’s successful democratic transition was that it rested upon buy-in from authoritarian spoilers, and built anti-democratic potential into the new system. Bland’s knack for engaging storytelling and memorable turns of phrase helps summarise these complex themes.

The key to understanding Jokowi’s inconsistencies, Bland argues, “lies in a heavy dose of realism about the nature of both Indonesia and the man”. Jokowi turned out not to be “the democratic reformer … but neither is he some sort of authoritarian wolf in sheep’s clothing. Rather, he has been shaped by the winds that swirl around him”. The massive Islamist mobilisation that brought down his close ally, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as Ahok), in 2016 is particularly identified as a determining factor that “blew him off course”. Bland rightly notes that the anti-Ahok mobilisation prompted Jokowi’s “reaching for the guide ropes of authoritarian rule” by bolstering the contingent of Suharto-era military figures in his cabinet.

Demonstrations brought down former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok (Agoes Rudianto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

 

But Bland pulls up short of a deeper examination of how rising Islamism also directly led to Jokowi taking an Islamic turn. Rather than being flung helplessly left and right by the growing tide of sectarian polarisation, Jokowi managed to harness and turn it on his opponents.

As his rival presidential candidate (now Defence Minister) Prabowo Subianto courted hardcore Islamist groups in the run-up to last year’s election, Jokowi recast his image from simple everyman to pious vanguard of Islamic moderatism. Key to this shift in strategy was his close alliance with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s largest Islamic organisation, which not only delivered important Muslim votes during the election constituencies but is now also supporting his efforts to further suppress Islamist opposition in his second term.

Jokowi continues to walk a tightrope between his desire for voluminous, “no-strings-attached” investment from Beijing and relatively high domestic suspicion of Chinese economic dominance.

As a political biography, Bland’s book could have further unpacked the president’s religious and ideological background to understand how it might be informing his engagement with political Islam. If Jokowi co-opted aspects of political Islam to mitigate the Islamist threat to his position, as Bland suggests, why didn’t he opt for the all-inclusive accommodation of his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono? Instead Jokowi selectively extended patronage to conservative figures from the mainstream NU, most notably Ma’ruf Amin, while repressing more hardcore Islamist groups such as Hizbut Tahrir.

Bland holds that Jokowi is part of the abangan (nominal Muslim) class who strategically projects himself to foreign leaders as champion of moderate Islam. However, he does not give more insights into Jokowi’s personal religious and ideological inclinations. It thus remains unclear whether Jokowi’s heavy-handed policy in combating radical Islam was motivated solely by political calculations or if his personal convictions also played a part.

The chapter on foreign policy is thinner than perhaps many had anticipated. Devoting significant space to Indonesia’s faltered maritime diplomacy and multilateral engagements, Bland misses opportunities to delve deeper into Indonesia’s most complex yet important bilateral relationships, that with China. Jokowi continues to walk a tightrope between his desire for voluminous, “no-strings-attached” investment from Beijing and relatively high domestic suspicion of Chinese economic dominance – driven in large part by Islamist opponents but also shared by others within the Muslim community.

The key to understanding this trade-off may lie in Jokowi’s more visible “Islamic diplomacy” in recent years. Though some have argued this Islamic diplomacy is driven by purely domestic concerns, there are still curious contradictions that are worth unpacking. The book unfortunately skips over discussion of the stark contrast between Indonesia’s silence on the Uighur issue and its increasingly vocal stance on Palestine, its surprisingly deep engagement in the Afghan peace process, or its expressed concerns over anti-Muslim violence in India.

Also missing is the Jokowi administration’s active role in the global campaign for “Archipelago Islam (Islam Nusantara)”, which is often feted by Western diplomats eager to hold the country up as a beacon of moderate Islam. A better understanding of when and why Jokowi has sought to employ moderate Muslim diplomacy and engage on the plight of Muslims elsewhere in the world could shed further light on his foreign policy calculus.

Overall, the book provides a concise summary of Jokowi’s political ascendancy and Indonesia’s second experiment with democracy. A deeper investigation into the uneven influence of religion on Jokowi’s governing decisions, including on foreign policy would help bring Indonesia’s “man of contradictions” into greater focus.

The limits of Zoom diplomacy in Asia

Say it quietly, lest the wrath of the pandemic gods be triggered. But the wheels of in-person diplomacy are starting to turn again across Asia. The smiling handshakes are gone, replaced by awkward elbow bumps and socially distanced photo opportunities. The negotiating tables have been moved further apart. And there are face masks and hand-sanitiser all round.

While some countries have their first pandemic waves under control others are still struggling to control Covid-19. Yet, from Japan and China to Indonesia and Singapore, Asia’s leading diplomats have re-commenced regular manoeuvres in the last few weeks. It is a sign that when it comes to high-level foreign policy, Zoom just does not cut it.

After receiving his counterparts from Indonesia, Pakistan and Hungary last week, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi headed off on a grand tour of Europe, taking in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Norway. Meanwhile, Yang Jiechi, the head of foreign affairs for China’s Communist Party and a Politburo member, has been in Singapore and South Korea.

It is revealing who is seeing who, and who has been left out.

Not wanting to be outdone, Japan sent its foreign minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, to Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar – all developing nations where China has been exerting increasing influence – as well as the UK.

Meanwhile, Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi travelled to Singapore to tee up the annual retreat meeting between President Joko Widodo and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. And Indonesian defence minister Prabowo Subianto has been in Russia and India scouting for new weapons deals.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi shares an elbow bump with Norway’s Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide last week during a visit to Oslo (Heiko Junge via Getty Images)

Given the health dangers, the hassles and the potential for domestic political blowback, these are not the usual diplomatic jaunts. Some ministers are germophobes who would rather keep their counterparts on the other end of an internet connection. Others are suffering diplomatic deficit disorder, craving the engagement, respect and veneration that can only come from in-person meetings. Many are probably feeling a bit of both.

But these officials clearly feel the possible rewards are worth it – or that the risks of leaving the field open to their rivals are too high. It is revealing who is seeing who, and who has been left out.

Wang Yi is on a charm offensive in the European Union, which last year called Beijing a “systemic rival” but is still wary of Washington’s unabashed China-bashing. Pakistan is being shown some love at a time when Beijing’s relations with India are at a nadir. And Yang Jiechi is seeking to shore up ties with Singapore and South Korea, which have their own qualms about the Trump administration’s China policies.

Japan’s Toshimitsu Motegi has been making the rounds in nations that have been moving closer to China but are still playing their own hedging game, seeking to maximise economic benefits from external partners and get trade and tourism flowing again.

And Indonesia’s foreign minister has been focusing on opening “green lanes” with key travel and investment hubs in China and Singapore, as well as ensuring Indonesia gets access to any Chinese vaccine for Covid-19.

In theory, all these issues could be discussed on a video conference. There are certainly advantages to the dreaded Zoom call or Teams meeting. The pandemic-enforced adoption of this long-standing video conferencing technology has enabled foreign ministers to have many more engagements, in a whirlwind of online diplomatic speed-dating. And officials are under pressure to be better prepared because the scheduling is much tighter than during multi-day visits.

However, there are doubts about the security of these online platforms. There is no personal touch. And the staid nature of video conferencing leaves no room for the sort of impromptu, sideline conversations where much of the real confidence-building and negotiation happens during summits and trips.

As Asia’s diplomats hit the skies with purpose at a time of intense great-power competition, where does that leave Australia?

Of course, Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds travelled to Washington last month for their annual AUSMIN meeting with US counterparts.

But Australian ministers will mostly have to stick to their webcams for now, with international travel almost completely halted, states fighting to maintain internal borders and political leaders afraid of jetting off when voters are grounded at home.

The priority of protecting the public from the pandemic is understandable. Nevertheless, the broader battle for influence in Asia has moved outside the Zoom waiting room to the echoing corridors of the world’s foreign ministries, presidential palaces and prime ministerial suites.

Brookings Report: Historical tensions and contemporary governance challenges in Southeast Asia: The case of Indonesia

In this report published by the Brookings Institution, Ben Bland explains why Western nations need to engage with Indonesia in its own right, not as a part of plan to counterbalance China. To do so successfully, they need to develop a much better understanding of the long-running (and ongoing) challenges of nation-building in Indonesia and the wider region.

West Papua: The Issue That Won't Go Away for Melanesia

West Papuans continue to fight for independence with the support of many Pacific nations. Despite Indonesia’s opposition and the recent impact of COVID-19 on the region, the resolution of West Papuan grievances may have stalled but nationalist sentiment has not been quelled. 

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