Wednesday 20 Feb 2019 | 15:55 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 20 Feb 2019 | 15:55 | SYDNEY

Will Jokowi skip the G20 in Brisbane?



20 October 2014 08:29

Indonesian president-elect Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi, will be inaugurated today in a ceremony in Jakarta to be attended by Tony Abbott and the leaders of a handful of other neighbours. Abbott's presence is a sign of the importance Australia attaches to the relationship.

But will Jokowi return the favour by attending the G20 in Brisbane in a little less than four weeks' time? The Jakarta Post quoted an unnamed adviser earlier this month suggesting that Jokowi would go to regional summits in Beijing and Naypyidaw in the days prior to the G20 but then return to Jakarta to push his domestic agenda rather than continue on to Brisbane.

Jokowi views himself primarily as a domestic reformer, and has little interest in the jet-setting life of an international statesman. (As if to emphasise this point, in this week's TIME cover story, Hannah Beech finds the president-elect sleeping in the back of an economy class flight to Solo). In an interview with Fairfax's John Garnaut and Michael Bachelard published over the weekend, Jokowi says it all depends upon one of his advisers:

"If he says 'yes you go', I will go," said Mr Joko, gesturing to his foreign policy adviser Rizal Sukma, seated beside him.

Mr Sukma, also laughing, replied: "We have to convince Pak Jokowi that G20 is important, that the agenda is important."

The exchange reveals the extent to which Jokowi will focus on domestic affairs rather than international diplomacy, and to which he will rely upon his advisers in foreign affairs, including Sukma, as I have argued in a new Lowy Institute Analysis on Jokowi's foreign policy that also profiles several of those advisers.

It would be a mistake for Jokowi to skip the G20.

It is an important opportunity for the new president to engage in debates in Brisbane over proposed measures to boost global economic growth and fund infrastructure projects. Given the the importance of commodity exports to the Indonesian economy and the dire need for improved infrastructure throughout the archipelago, the outcome of those debates could be key to Jokowi's ability to deliver growth and prosperity at home, despite significant macroeconomic and political headwinds.

The G20 is also an opportunity to demonstrate to Australian leaders that, even as he focuses on domestic reforms, Jokowi is interested in building greater trust with Australia, as he said he was during the 22 June presidential debate. Moreover, it makes sense in terms of domestic politics: with critics among the opposition Red-White Coalition (KMP) seeking to exploit even the slightest misstep by Jokowi in their no-holds-barred campaign to weaken and embarrass him, they seem likely to seize upon a no-show to argue that he is unprepared to direct Indonesian diplomacy.

But if Jokowi does decide to skip the summit, it is a mistake we should be willing to overlook, for it comes at a particularly bad time for a new president, whose administration has been born in battle.

His promises of reform are now in danger: over the past four weeks the KMP, led by Jokowi's defeated opponent Prabowo Subianto, has sought to systematically dismantle the institutions that would allow Jokowi to enact his reform agenda. In an interview earlier this month, Prabowo's brother and benefactor, Hashim Djodjohadikusumo, indicated that KMP would seek to take a page from Congressional Republicans in the US by obstructing Jokowi's agenda. Just as legislative obstruction has twice led President Obama to cancel official visits, it would be understandable if Jokowi felt he needed to stay home to push back against KMP attempts to further weaken his position.

If Jokowi skips Brisbane, however, he should also skip Beijing. Attending one and not the other could be interpreted as an indication that Indonesia under Jokowi would lean toward either China (if he only goes to Beijing) or America and its allies (if he only goes to Brisbane). Were he to skip both, he would see almost all of the same leaders at the East Asia Summit in Naypyidaw on 12 November — including Chinese President Xi Jinping, Obama, and Abbott — as he would at the other two summits.  This would also emphasise the centrality of ASEAN in the regional architecture, which has served Indonesia (and the rest of the region) well by ensuring that regional institutions are open and inclusive.

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