Indonesian leader in global spotlight

Indonesian leader in global spotlight

Between November 10 and 16, Joko will attend APEC, Asean, East Asia Summit, and G-20 meetings .

In his previous life as a small-time furniture exporter and exhibitor, Joko Widodo was used to erecting stages. But in early November, just days after being sworn in as the president of Indonesia, he will now be sharing a stage with the world’s most powerful leaders.

Between November 10 and 16, Joko will, in succession, attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit meeting in Beijing, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) leaders’ meeting and the East Asia Summit, both being held in Naypyidaw, Myanmar; and a meeting of G-20 leaders in Brisbane, Australia.

Joko, who was sworn in as president recently, comes into office with no foreign policy experience, and his introduction into international affairs will be, according to analysts, a trial by fire. “The most important thing is meeting these leaders face to face,” Joko said in an interview shortly before his inauguration, “and develop those relationships.”

That may be easier said than done, given that he doesn’t have much in common with his counterparts. Born in a slum in the province of Central Java, Joko, 53, a former carpenter, is the first Indonesian president not to come from the country’s political elite or be an army general.

He is expected to have bilateral meetings during the conferences with, among others, President Vladimir V Putin of Russia, who is a former KGB officer, and Thailand prime minister Gen Prayuth Chanocha, who carried out a military coup there last May. The biggest thing Joko has in common with President Barack Obama, whom his aides said he is scheduled to meet one-on-one in Beijing, is that they both have lived in Indonesia.

Tall, thin and unassuming, Joko himself has joked that his face looks more like that of a village street-food vendor than of a head of state. But behind it lies a sharp intellect and kinetic energy to get things done. As governor of Jakarta, he was mobbed by well-wishers during his daily walking tours through traditional markets and slum areas, where he would talk about bread-and-butter issues such as health care, education and traffic.

Joko’s unusual style and equally unusual nickname (“Jokowi”), coupled with his unlikely ascension to the Indonesian presidency, garnered heavy international media attention and piqued the interest of foreign leaders.

“It will be interesting to see Jokowi’s personal chemistry with Obama and other leaders, and how he performs,” said Matthew P Goodman, senior adviser for Asian economics at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who served as the Obama administration’s White House coordinator for APEC and the East Asia Summit in 2011. “Other leaders will be looking at how he performs, with a neutral eye,” he said.

Joko came into office with pressing domestic concerns, in particular a hostile group of opposition parties in Indonesia’s House of Representatives that are controlled by Prabowo Subianto, a former army general who lost to him in the country’s July 9 presidential election.

“He would have come to these meetings as a star, but he’s domestically distracted,” said Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean diplomat and the current dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

“What it does is affect the attention you pay to events, and whether you have a free hand to launch initiatives,” Mahbubani said, adding that Joko should remain low-key at the summits and treat them as a learning experience.

Others are looking for Joko to immediately play a visible role on the international stage, given that Indonesia is the world’s fourth-most populous country, its largest Muslim-majority state and a G-20 member. It also lies astride the world’s busiest shipping lane in the Strait of Malacca.

Indonesia also has domestic problems with a global impact, including climate change due to deforestation, terrorism and human trafficking. “He has an opportunity to shine,” said Alexander Feldman, president and chief executive of the U.S.-Asean Business Council. “The world is curious about Jokowi and what he is going to focus on. And I think that world leaders want to court him.”

Since its independence from Dutch colonial rule in the 1940s, Indonesia has maintained a feel-good foreign policy that Joko’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, described as “a million friends and zero enemies.” The country’s transition to democracy, which began in 1999, and its growing economic importance have placed it in the same conversation as Asia’s two largest emerging economies: China and India. Yudhoyono worked to further project both Indonesia’s and his own influence on the global stage, with issues such as climate change and Islamic extremism, with indifferent results.

Regional power

“Indonesia at one point tried to mediate on the Korean Peninsula, and that didn’t work out very well,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Analysts and Joko’s advisers said he would be less ambitious and instead try to project Indonesia’s influence through Asean, its traditional foreign policy base. “Indonesia is best described as a regional power with global concerns – it’s not China or India,” said Amitav Acharya, a professor at American University in Washington and author of “Indonesia Matters: Asia’s Emerging Democratic Power.”

“But by playing the role of a regional mediator and helping to keep Asean together, Indonesia helps to contribute to stability in the Asia-Pacific region and the world,” he said, “since it is in the Asia-Pacific that we have all the major powers - the US, China, Japan and India - whose relationships will be key to global stability.”

Rizal Sukma, an adviser to Joko, said the president’s foreign policy would be directed more by business and economic concerns than geopolitical ones. He said Indonesia’s geographical location gives it the ability, as an archipelago state, to practice “maritime diplomacy.”

“You can’t eat an international image,” he said. “The key focus is to use diplomacy for economic benefit. We have a strategic partnership with India, but the relationship has not reached half its potential.” 

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