Indonesia shows the value of non-aligned leadership

Indonesia won’t always see eye-to-eye with the West, or with China, which makes it an important balancing force in Asia.

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Published 28 November 2022 3 minute READ

On a trip to Jakarta last month, I asked a senior Indonesian official if he was excited about hosting the G20 leaders’ summit, which took place in mid-November in Bali. ‘We’re counting down,’ he told me, but more out of frustration than anticipation. ‘We just want to get it done.’

Indonesian President Joko Widodo had hoped to use his country’s G20 presidency this year to support his overwhelming focus on economic development and burnish his legacy as he prepares to step down in 2024, having reached the constitutional two-term limit.

However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, and the ongoing deterioration in US-China relations, put paid to the aspiration that the G20 could be a geopolitics-free forum to promote Indonesia’s inclusive vision of growth and opportunity for all.  Indonesian diplomats were caught between supporting their president’s economic ambitions and outside powers leaning on them to condemn or ignore Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The value of the G20

The problem with being non-aligned, a stance that is hard-baked into Indonesia’s independent and active foreign policy, is that other states will always try to pull Indonesia towards their position. But, through deft diplomacy, Indonesia found a form of words about Ukraine that was acceptable enough to get the leaders’ sign-off in Bali.

The choice of language was restrained, reflecting the UN General Assembly resolution deploring Russian aggression and acknowledging the adverse impact on the global economy but stating that there were ‘other views and different assessments of the situation and sanctions’ and that ‘the G20 is not the forum to resolve security issues’.

The G20’s value is as a forum for debate between powerful, diverse and sometimes querulous countries, not as a mutual backslapping club.

It might seem mealy-mouthed. But, in our increasingly divided world, such circumlocutions are essential to keeping the world’s 20 biggest economies, which make up the G20, meeting and talking. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated existing splits within the G20 between rich nations and developing countries over different attitudes to global governance and intensifying US-China rivalry.

There are some officials in Australia, the US and the UK who have been angling to shift their governments’ focus from the G20 to the G7. They see the latter, which contains only wealthy liberal democracies, as a forum for coordinating efforts to push back China, while they see the G20 as an ineffective talking-shop where China has too much influence. The reluctance of large G20 members like Indonesia and India to strongly condemn Russia has compounded these frustrations.

But the G20’s value is as a forum for debate between powerful, diverse and sometimes querulous countries, not as a mutual backslapping club.

Indonesia takes its own positions on world affairs

Likewise, Indonesia is a valuable international partner because it takes its own positions on global affairs, not because it is always like-minded. On some important questions, such as the response to human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Russia’s position on the UN Human Rights Council, Indonesia did not side with liberal democracies, because it prioritizes the protection of sovereignty and resistance to perceived external interference.

On other critical questions, such as the UN General Assembly vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Indonesia voted with the G7 in defence of the selfsame concept of sovereignty.

While Indonesians are proud of their own democracy, they do not measure others by a democratic yardstick.

Western officials must understand that Indonesians do not see the world in the same black and white lens that they do, assessing partner countries based on their political system and international reputation. While Indonesians are proud of their own democracy, they do not measure others by a democratic yardstick.

Jakarta has long maintained relationships with Iran, Russia and North Korea, which are all considered pariahs in the West. And Indonesia’s deepening relationship with Beijing, which is linked to growing China infrastructure investments, is adding to Western concerns about Indonesia’s alignment.

Retno Marsudi, Indonesia’s foreign minister, warned in her UN General Assembly speech in September that unnamed ‘mini-lateral groupings’ risked undermining regional peace and stability by replaying the proxy battles of the Cold War.

Many Western officials cont.

Many Western officials assumed she was criticizing the Quad, the group comprised of Australia, India, Japan and the US, and AUKUS, the partnership in which the US and the UK will help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines. ‘They sound like Chinese talking points,’ one senior diplomat from an AUKUS country complained to me. But they were Indonesian talking points.

A balancing force in Asia

Indonesia won’t always see eye-to-eye with its Western partners. At the same time, it won’t always agree with China. While Jakarta tries to maintain a balance between these rival blocs, it speaks in a different voice to each.

Indonesia tends to be more outspoken to its Western partners, and more deferential in tone to China. But rather than recoil at this, Western officials should see it as a sign of the robust nature of their relationship with Indonesia, and the still-fragile nature of Jakarta’s relationship with Beijing.

Indonesia has not tried to solve the conflict in Ukraine, but it has tried to keep major powers talking. That is a valuable service to the world in these fractious times.

As Indonesia becomes a more confident and active regional and global actor, it will tread on Western toes, but it will tread on Chinese toes too. As G20 president, Indonesia has shown a desire to find the slim common ground between competing, even warring, nations. It has not tried to solve the conflict in Ukraine, but it has tried to keep major powers talking. That is a valuable service to the world in these fractious times.

The G20 presidency might be at an end but Indonesia has taken the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for the next year and will have another opportunity to show what non-aligned nations can offer the region and beyond. As its economy continues to grow over the next decade, a more powerful Indonesia won’t always be an easy partner. But it can be an important, independent balancing force in Asia.