Widodo needs to make G20 agenda resonate on the home front

At the same time, he is selling the benefits of the chairmanship to domestic audiences as everything from a boost to tourism and hospitality to opportunities to drum up investment on the sidelines of the G20 meetings.

That message has been well-received at home, with a palpable sense of pride among Indonesians about the leadership moment the G20 offers their country. But to international audiences, Indonesia now faces the challenge of proving its ability to eke results out of a divided G20.

Indonesia’s unique position

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hasn’t just exacerbated the global economic turmoil that the G20 was designed to prevent and address – it threatened 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 might not be a G20 summit this year.

That the group isn’t dead in the water is down to Indonesia’s unique position within the developing world as a bridge between these two broad forces within the G20, and some deft diplomacy by its president and his officials.

But there’s a risk that relief at securing 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 risk when he observed in a recent interview 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 reform of the World Trade Organisation, building on the welcome momentum out of the so-called “MC12” ministerial meeting.

Ambitions should be kept high for Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship in 2023, which offers an opportunity to bed down the institutions and process of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, to which Australia is a signatory, 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 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 Indonesian activism on the world stage. An ongoing agenda for reformers and internationalists will be to not only emphasizee how engagement with multilateral institutions addresses the problems the voters think they have, but to highlight the problems and opportunities the voters don’t recognize are in front of them, and how Indonesia’s agency is critical in realizing 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.

But a more acute domestic understanding of Indonesia’s global interests –among voters, the media and politicos – will be a critical ingredient to Indonesia’s maximizing of its potential as a champion of developing-economy interests in global and regional co-operation.

Liam Gammon is a research fellow in the East Asian Bureau of Economic Research and an editor at East Asia Forum (www.eastasiaforum.org) in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

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