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Indonesia needs to find international strength on the home front

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Author: Editorial Board, ANU

Just as all national politics is local, all international politics is domestic. The intrusion of the domestic onto the international stage gets a bad rap — from Trump to Brexit to the Taiwan Strait. But individual countries’ activism in pursuit of domestic political and economic interests can be good for the international system.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo looks at the racing flag as he opens the parade of MotoGP racers outside the Merdeka Presidential Palace, ahead of the Indonesian Grand Prix on Lombok island, in Jakarta, Indonesia, 16 March 2022 (Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan).

A keen eye for where national economic self-interest lies has been at the heart of the process of international economic integration and the institutions designed to further it throughout the Asia Pacific over the decades. The Australian governments that liberalised the Australian economy from the beginning of the 1980s saw domestic microeconomic reform, negotiating multilateral trade liberalisation in the GATT Uruguay Round and helping build a new multilateral architecture to liberalise trade and investment across the Asia Pacific as inseparable elements in a process of ‘making the world safe’ for a newly competitive post-industrial Australian economy. They had the benefit of being able to build upon Japan’s liberalisation and opening up — deeply linked to post-war leaders’ concern with securing both Japan’s access to raw materials and prosperous markets for its exports of consumer and capital goods — and, for a short sweet-time, a US political leadership that saw free trade as a boon to its powerful knowledge economy.

Fast forward to the present day: if there’s to be pushback against pervasive economic isolationism and new energy to the process of integration and cooperation, it will be found in new coalitions of developing countries who seek to mould it to suit their domestic growth and economic security needs.

No country has more potential in this regard than Indonesia — but there are still doubts about whether the nexus between Indonesia’s domestic politics and global activism is as productive as it could be, writes Shafiah Muhibat in this week’s feature article.

Indonesia’s hosting of the G20 in 2022 ‘exposes Indonesia’s global leadership aspirations to a new level of international scrutiny’. The administration of President Joko Widodo has invested a good deal of political credibility in the successful holding of the summit, and ‘a “successful” G20 summit is essential to save Indonesia significant national embarrassment’.

This is especially true on the home front for Widodo who, facing the end of his term in 2024, has put his domestic political muscle behind Indonesia’s three key G20 agendas: ‘global health architecture, the digital transformation of the global economy and energy transition’. Indeed, ‘explaining how the G20 presidency will benefit the country has been a main part of the government’s effort to ensure domestic support for all the efforts.’ But ‘while the Widodo administration still needs to please its domestic audience, it now confronts a severe test of its capacities to deliver global outcomes in a complicated geopolitical and crisis-plagued world’.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hasn’t just exacerbated the global economic tumult that the G20 was designed to prevent and address — it threatens to make the group itself politically untenable. Were the G20 chairmanship in the hands of a G7 state, or one of the developing members with close ties to Moscow, there’s every chance that there would be no G20 this year. That the group isn’t dead in the water is down to Indonesia’s unique leadership position within the developing world as a bridge between these two broad factions within the G20, and some deft diplomacy by its president and officials.

But there’s a risk that relief at just the successful securing of the G20’s meeting schedule gives rise to complacent expectations about what those meetings might achieve. Former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa was surely alluding to this when he observed that ‘there is a very important distinction between chairmanship and leadership’.

Indonesia can and should press against the odds for agreement at the G20 not only on its signature issues but also on issues of WTO reform, building on the welcome momentum out of the MC12 meeting. Ambitions should likewise be kept high for Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship in 2023, which offers an opportunity to bed down the institutions and process of RCEP so its potential as an instrument of regional economic integration can be achieved.

Granted, these issues don’t automatically capture the public’s imagination in any country — certainly not in Indonesia, where voters have more tangible things — like the price of cooking oil — to worry about. But as Natalegawa says, ‘policymakers must have the courage to inform the wider public on how things actually are externally, rather than simply be dictated by what they think the public wants to hear and expect from them’.

The Widodo administration has worked hard to justify its investment of time, resources and political capital in the G20 this year on the grounds that it addresses voters’ short-term concerns with food and energy costs, and vindicates a general sense of Indonesia’s growing importance in world affairs. But this is a somewhat limited domestic political basis for Indonesia’s activism on the world stage. An ongoing agenda for reformers and internationalists will be to not only emphasise how engagement with multilateral institutions addresses the problems the voters think they have, but to highlight the problems and opportunities the voters don’t recognise affect them, and how Indonesia’s agency is critical in realising those opportunities.

To be sure, that is the work of years and decades, not the months that remain until crunch time at November’s G20 leaders’ summit. A more acute domestic understanding of Indonesia’s global interests — among voters, the media, and politicos — will be a critical ingredient to Indonesia’s maximising its potential as a champion of developing-economy interests in global and regional cooperation.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

The post Indonesia needs to find international strength on the home front first appeared on East Asia Forum.



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