Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will skip a key summit in the Philippines next week in a move that will raise further questions among some about his administration’s commitment to regional multilateralism.
According to Ari Dwipayana, a member of the presidential communications team, Vice-President Jusuf Kalla is scheduled to take Jokowi’s place in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Manila from November 17 to 20, where confirmed state leaders in attendance include U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Sources at the State Palace told The Jakarta Post that given the fact that Jokowi had to attend to several urgent domestic matters that require his immediate attention, the president felt uncomfortable spending more than 10 days abroad to attend a host of multilateral meetings, including the G-20 summit in Turkey, APEC in the Philippines, and the ASEAN summit and East Asia Summit in Malaysia.
Irrespective of the stated rationale, the move will undoubtedly fuel anxieties about Indonesia’s waning commitment to regional multilateralism under Jokowi’s so-called people-oriented, results-driven foreign policy.
Last November, following his first trip abroad for a series of the same multilateral meetings – in that case, APEC in Beijing, the ASEAN Summit in Myanmar and the G-20 in Australia – Jokowi had said that he would not invest much time in diplomatic relationships that were not beneficial. That statement had raised eyebrows since Asian multilateralism has always been as much about being present as it has been about the substance therein, a point even the United States had come to appreciate under the Obama administration.
As I have noted previously, one Jokowi foreign policy adviser had also controversially suggested that ASEAN, long regarded as the cornerstone of Indonesian foreign policy, was now only a cornerstone (See: “Is Indonesia Turning Away from ASEAN Under Jokowi?”).
While Indonesia has long been regarded as a leader in ASEAN, Southeast Asian elites this year have both privately and publicly voiced concerns about Jakarta’s unwillingness to engage on issues not directly serving its immediate national interests, including the implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) as the regional bloc prepares to usher in a regional community at the end of this year.
In April, Jokowi only attended the plenary session of the 26th ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur, with Kalla representing him during the retreat in Langkawi.
It is still unclear what specific issues caused Jokowi to skip APEC this year, since he was able to attend all meetings last year in spite of suggestions he may miss out on the G-20 meet. According to Philippine news outlet Rappler, Philippine Foreign Undersecretary Laura del Rosario spoke to a senior Indonesian official and only said that Jokowi wanted a period in between regional meetings “to go home and to address some domestic concerns.”
There is also no certainty about whether Jokowi will attend the ASEAN and EAS meetings, though foreign ministry spokesperson Arrmanatha Nasir reassured the Post that he was on track to do so.
As I reported earlier for The Diplomat, Jokowi unexpectedly cut short his visit to the United States last month, citing the need to tend to the annual choking haze from raging forest fires back home which had sparked regional concerns among Indonesia’s neighbors (See: “Jokowi Defends Indonesia’s Foreign Policy During US Trip”).
During that visit, Jokowi had indicated that Indonesia intended to join the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a mammoth trade pact whose members comprise around 40 percent of global GDP (See: “Indonesia Wants to Join TPP: President Jokowi”).