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Obama should encourage Jokowi to lead in East Asia

Obama should encourage Jokowi to lead in East Asia

Later today, Indonesian President Joko Widodo will become only the latest Asian leader to arrive at the White House for consultations with President Barack Obama. But Obama’s talks with Jokowi, as the president of the world's third largest democracy is known, will be quite different from his talks with other leaders from the region this year.

Jokowi is not a powerful reformer with a strategic vision for his country’s place in the region, like Japan’s Shinzo Abe, India’s Narendra Modi, or China’s Xi Jinping.

Jokowi barely won his country’s presidential election last year, and has struggled to maintain the support of the oligarchs who control the parties in his coalition (including his own party, led by former President Megawati Sukarnoputri). The fractious legislature is controlled by the president’s political opponents, and Jokowi’s own Cabinet has publicly clashed over policy differences on several occasions. Jokowi’s approval rating, at 72% upon taking office, is down to 52% a year later, due to both the president’s reluctance to back anti-corruption officials who had pursued cases against the National Police and members of his coalition, and to higher prices for household goods, driven up by his administration’s protectionist policies.

Though he ran as a results-driven leader who would speed up infrastructure projects that would in turn boost the economy, his record is mixed at best. Halfway through the year, the government had spent only 8% of its infrastructure budget. Economic growth, that Jokowi promised in his campaign would reach 7%, is expected to decline from 5% to 4.7% this year.

The president reshuffled his economic team in August, and argues it turned a corner in recent weeks after announcing a raft of stimulus measures. Karen Brooks lays out the case for hope in this morning's Wall Street Journal. The currency and the stock market have responded favorably, and bond yields have declined. But the measures have been scattershot; the most protectionist laws and regulations remain in place. Jokowi's team has done enough to calm investors' nerves but it has yet to present a real reform agenda.

Perhaps most startling has been the way in which Indonesia has shrunk from the world stage under Jokowi. [fold]

Under Jokowi’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia played a leadership role in the region. Indonesia is the largest country and considered the first among equals by its neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which drives much regional diplomacy in East Asia.

Yudhoyono’s last foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, sought to preserve peace and stability in the region, shuttling between capitals to secure a ceasefire in a Thai-Cambodian border dispute in 2011, and again to preserve ASEAN unity in the face of Chinese pressure on the issue of territorial disputes in the South China Sea in 2012. Yudhoyono himself hosted two important summits of regional leaders on the resort island of Bali, meetings which took sensitive regional issues head-on.

Jokowi came into office skeptical that all of Yudhoyono’s summitry had amounted to much for the Indonesian people. In his first speech to the Indonesian diplomatic corps, he instructed them to focus on 'down to earth diplomacy': marketing Indonesian products abroad, resolving consular problems overseas, and defending Indonesian sovereignty — not on summitry. Jokowi did host leaders of the non-aligned movement for the 60th anniversary of the Asia Africa Conference, but even here we see domestic politics at work: it was Megawati, whose father Sukarno hosted the first Asia Africa Conference, who prevailed upon Jokowi to host the summit.

Jokowi’s most prominent policies, however, are classically non-aligned; he seems to believe that Indonesia is too often disadvantaged, in terms of economics or dignity, in its engagements with the world around it. For example, he has sought to attract more favorable terms for foreign investment to fund his infrastructure projects, and to end the practice of Indonesians traveling overseas to serve as domestic workers, an occupation he finds degrading. His most popular policy, by far, is a campaign against illegal foreign fishing in Indonesian waters, which has featured the fiery destruction of foreign vessels caught fishing without permission.

Indonesia's retreat into down-to-earth diplomacy and the cynicism of non-alignment is unfortunate, for Indonesian diplomatic leadership has much to offer the region. Though it often frustrates those Americans and others in Southeast Asia who would prefer that Indonesia take a much harder tack against China, Indonesia’s independent foreign policy allows it to play the role of an honest broker in regional disputes; but only if it is allowed to be energetic and fully engaged.

Jokowi’s first visit to Washington as president comes just over a year after his inauguration. In his meetings with President Obama and other Cabinet officials, he is expected to sign several agreements to update the bureaucratic infrastructure of the relationship between the two countries, including a new strategic dialogue between Indonesian and American ministers. These are important steps that will lead to much useful cooperation at the working level, particularly on maritime and defence issues.

President Obama will also likely seek to move Jokowi closer to the United States’ view of regional issues, particularly on the South China Sea dispute. Jokowi is unlikely to go along, as his advisers remain wary of too close an association with either Washington or Beijing. But the most important message that President Obama could deliver to President Jokowi would be to encourage him to give his diplomats a mandate to resume the vital leadership role that Indonesia has earned by virtue of its size, geography, and history.

The US and Indonesia may not always see regional issues the same way, but leadership by both is essential to maintain the liberal international order in the region.

Photo by Feng Li - Pool/Getty Images

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