President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s week-long visit to South Asia in late January was meant to accomplish two objectives. First, the state visit aimed to revive relationships with countries that once found an ideological ally in Indonesia to build a world order free from entangled alliances with then two superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union. Second, Jokowi took the opportunity to uplift his image among Indonesians who will go to the polls next year. His trip was geared toward whipping up support among those who like to see their country forge stronger ties with Muslim countries and take a more active role in managing regional affairs, like the Rohingya crisis and maintaining maritime safety. Against this strategic backdrop, Jokowi’s trip to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka seems productive.
With the dwindling appeal of the nonaligned movement among its crucial founding members, such as India and Indonesia, South Asia had come to play second fiddle to Indonesia’s strategic focus on its immediate neighborhood: the ever-happening Southeast Asia, as well as Australia. Jokowi’s visits to Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, for example, took place 38 and nearly 60 years, respectively, since the last time an Indonesian president set foot in these countries. Jokowi’s trip thus marks a much needed update to Indonesia’s relations with the countries of South Asia.
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Taking a closer look at Jokowi’s diplomatic overtures in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, it became apparent that his team did their homework diligently. In India, Jokowi seemed to play along with his media-savvy host, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while making sure he would not say something that might rankle China. Take for instance the concept of the Indo-Pacific regional order. While the term had been in use by Indian and Japanese policymakers, as well as others, for several years, U.S. President Donald Trump’s use of the term at last year’s APEC Summit brought it to the fore of regional discussions.
Jokowi reportedly “endorsed” the Indo-Pacific concept during his visit to India for its Republic Day celebrations. However, he did not go much further with it, as he invited “key countries in the region” to the discussion based on “openness” and “inclusiveness.” In other words, he did not want China to feel left out by the ASEAN countries in shaping how the future will hold for the region. At the same time, he was onboard with India to strengthen maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean region.
These two seemingly conflicting moves demonstrate that Jokowi understands the nuances and complexities of regional politics quite well and wants to take a more balanced step to preserve and advance Indonesia’s interests at a time when India and China are jockeying for influence.
Indonesia’s economy has enjoyed healthy growth for the past few years, thanks to Jokowi’s economic reforms, stimulus packages, and investments in infrastructure projects. The largest economy of Southeast Asia, Indonesia now naturally seeks to expand its market share in South Asia. While the ASEAN-India forum gave Jokowi and other ASEAN leaders a chance to give the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) a timely push, Jokowi conducted parallel bilateral trade diplomacy as well. For instance, Jokowi sent his trade minister, along with a large business delegation, to India and Pakistan to boost bilateral trade.
Jokowi explored business opportunities in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as well. He prodded Sri Lanka to sign a free trade agreement while Bangladesh is exploring signing a preferential trade agreement with Indonesia. Perhaps motivated by the success of exporting some 400 train cars to Bangladesh, Indonesia pledged to help upgrade Sri Lanka’s train service, potentially providing the state-owned railway manufacturer with lucrative deals. At present, Indonesia enjoys a trade surplus with both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and wants to increase it significantly in the years to come.
Although belatedly, Indonesia has moved forward with a plan to assist the energy-hungry South Asian countries. Indonesia’s state-owned energy company, Pertamina, has agreed to supply liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Bangladesh and Pakistan starting from this year. Both countries have signed a ten-year agreement with Indonesia to tackle their growing energy needs. Pakistan’s prime minister made it clear that his country considers LNG to be the “only solution to the energy crisis” his country is facing.
LNG proves important for Bangladesh, too, as the country eyes increasing its electricity production to 24,000 megawatts by 2021. Since its proven gas reservoirs are gradually being depleted, Bangladesh needs to secure a reliable and continuous supply of fuels like natural gas and coal. Earlier, Dhaka sealed a deal with Qatar to import LNG and moved on to building two LNG storage terminals. A similar deal with Indonesia means the Hasina government is serious about securing new energy sources. And Indonesia, being the largest energy producer in Southeast Asia, is a logical source to court. Indonesia is also in talks with Bangladesh to export coal, indicating its bright future in South Asia’s energy market.
Bolstering Muslim Fraternity
In Bangladesh and Pakistan, Jokowi sent his domestic audience the signal that he seeks to become a responsible leader among Muslim countries. While addressing Pakistan’s legislature, he reminded his hosts that the Muslim people are the worst victims of terrorism perhaps in a bid to come closer to Pakistani leaders, who maintain that their country is the victim of terrorism — rather than a safe haven or sponsor for terrorism, as other countries allege.
Jokowi also denounced war and conflicts, saying that weapons can never bring economic prosperity. He reaffirmed his country’s commitment toward a peaceful solution to the Palestine issue. Indonesia, along with Turkey and Pakistan, has been vocal in condemning Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Jokowi visited Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh and pledged to provide aid for them. Interestingly, Jokowi did not publicly criticize Myanmar’s government, but praised Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s assistance to the persecuted people. As many as 700,000 Rohingya people have sought refuge in Bangladesh since the conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine region spiked again in August last year.
However, Jokowi did not want to reinvigorate relations with Muslim countries in South Asia by invoking shared religion alone. He promoted democracy and encouraged his Afghan counterpart Ashraf Ghani to follow Indonesia’s footprints in amassing support from the country’s clerics in the fight against terrorism. “With democracy, Indonesia’s economy becomes one [of] the 20 largest in the world,” proclaimed a proud Jokowi at the Pakistani parliament. While Indonesia has still not reached to the point when it can dispense prescriptions for democracy, South Asian countries, especially those with ailing democracy, could find some inspiration in Jokowi’s statement.
Arafat Kabir is a Bangladesh-based analyst of regional and global affairs. His articles have appeared in outlets including The Wall Street Journal, The National Interest and International Policy Digest. Follow him on Twitter @ArafatKabirUpol.