To G or Not to G(20): that’s the question for Indonesia’s new president

New Indonesian president Joko Widodo’s still unsure about attending the G20 Summit in Brisbane. AAP Image/Eka Nickmatulhuda

Australian prime minister Tony Abbott met with newly sworn Indonesian president Joko Widodo after his inauguration in Jakarta, inviting him to attend the G20 Summit in Brisbane.

But Jokowi, as the new president is popularly called, said he could not confirm his attendance yet.

In the space of a week after his 20 October inauguration, Jokowi has invitations to no fewer than five summit meetings: three linked meetings in Naypidaw, Burma on 9-11 November, involving ASEAN and its bilateral partners, and the East Asian Summit; the 26th APEC summit in Beijing on 10-11 November; and then the Brisbane-based G20 summit on 15-16 November 2014.

Fitting all those meetings into a presidential diary already full with domestic appointments will be difficult, to say the least.

The consensus around Jakarta seems to be that Jokowi will attend the Burma and Beijing meetings. But the Brisbane meeting is still up in the air. Indonesia will clearly be represented, but perhaps not by the President himself.

Indonesia’s membership in the G20

Being a member of the G20 provides confirmation for Indonesia of its increasing global stature; that it is gaining international recognition as a nation whose views need to be taken into account in world affairs.

It is one of the few genuinely developing country members of the G20 – if we dismiss the IMF’s classification of members such as Argentina, Brazil and China as “developing”. No other Southeast Asian state is a member, despite the much greater economic strength of Malaysia, Thailand and, most clearly, Singapore.

Indonesia takes seriously its implied role as a representative of other developing countries.

Under Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s leadership, Indonesia has acted as a broker on climate change issues between other members and co-chaired a number of important finance-related working groups. One of them was on the reform of the multilateral development banks, thus helping shape G20 policy in these areas.

But Indonesia is not one of the major G20 movers and shakers. It vies with India for the dubious distinction of being the poorest member state with the lowest Human Development Index score. Its membership owes at least as much to the organisation’s desire to ensure geographical balance and population representation amongst its members as it does to its economic strength.

For Indonesia, the intangible pluses of G20 membership probably compensate for the absence of major tangible benefits such as increased investment inflows or trade opportunities.

Why might Jokowi skip the Brisbane summit?

Jokowi will be calculating what benefits would arise from his attendance in Brisbane. He would have to decide whether it is most profitable to spend his time at home or overseas.

As with most international conferences, the bulk of the real work of the G20 conference is done before the summit meeting, at meetings of ministers and senior government officials. For heads of government in attendance, the summits offer opportunities to meet each other, to exchange ideas and indulge in photo ops.

World leaders attending the G20 summit can indulge in photo ops. (AAP Image/Yonhap)

The G20 would presumably provide Jokowi with the chance to chat one-on-one with world leaders such as US president Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping, both of whom have strategic interests in the Southeast Asian region and who clearly recognise the leading role played there by Indonesia.

But he is likely to have the opportunity to meet these two leaders – and others including Shinzo Abe and Vladimir Putin – at the Beijing APEC meeting. So for Jokowi, attending the G20 summit would be less attractive than it might otherwise have been.

Moreover, Jokowi is wary of falling into the same political trap as SBY, who was widely criticised for appearing to put more effort into gaining attention from world leaders than into solving Indonesia’s domestic problems.

Jokowi has made it clear that he will not follow suit. He will not ignore the international arena, but his primary focus will be on domestic issues. He has already flagged initiatives to improve the country’s infrastructure, health and education, all of which will demand major inputs of energy and resources.

Politics at home

This domestic focus has become even more pressing in the weeks since he won the presidential election in July. The coalition of parties which supported Jokowi’s presidential opponent, Prabowo Subianto, has proved to be remarkably resilient and more than willing to use its numbers in the national parliament to enact measures aimed at frustrating Jokowi’s capacity to govern.

The party of defeated Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto leads a coalition in the national parliament bent on frustrating Jokowi’s presidency. EPA/ADI WEDA

Prabowo’s coalition is challenging the new approach in Indonesian politics that is moving away from oligarchy. They eliminated direct elections for local and provincial leaders by passing a new regional election law. For the past decade, mayors, regents and governors, have been directly elected. Jokowi himself owes his position to this system. But now local leaders would be chosen by their respective local and provincial assemblies, not by the electorate at large.

How Jokowi handles this issue of his opposition in parliament, will shape his administration and determine its future. These are much more important issues than travelling to Brisbane for the November G20 meeting.

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