ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

How Does Jokowi See Indonesia in the Post-Pandemic World?

There are signs that the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the Indonesian president’s view of his country’s international role.

How Does Jokowi See Indonesia in the Post-Pandemic World?

Indonesian President Joko Widodo addresses the U.N. General Assembly on September 23, 2021.

Credit: Facebook/Presiden Joko Widodo

It is not a new thing to observe that Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration to date has been inward-looking and domestic-oriented in its foreign policy. It has also been acknowledged by many that Indonesia represents a paradox in terms of its international economic engagement. Indonesia under Jokowi has been characterized by economic protectionism and narrow nationalism, while at the same time craving international investments. Into this equation comes COVID-19. In many parts of the world, the pandemic has been a significant disrupter, shifting nations’ foreign policy priorities and perspectives of many national leaders. To what extent is this true about Jokowi?

It is hard to determine whether Indonesia’s post-pandemic international engagement will hold fast to its pre-COVID-19 positions or shift to a different focus in the future. To do so, it is essential to analyze Jokowi’s stance as a leader, particularly how he influenced the way Indonesia presented itself internationally. While he unfortunately does not often speak vocally in public on international affairs, some important speeches offer some insight into his general thoughts.

After his re-election in 2019, Jokowi made a victory speech in front of his main supporters. Speaking optimistically, he invited all Indonesians to be brave and confident in facing the reality of global competition. He said he believed that Indonesia can be one of the strongest countries in the world. In his remarks, the Indonesian leader also acknowledged that Indonesia is living in a very dynamic global environment, full of change, velocity, risk, and surprises. A year after, that surprise hit Indonesia and the world in the form of COVID-19. Currently, Indonesia continues to struggle to combat the pandemic, despite the achievements of its massive national vaccination program.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic, and Indonesia’s struggle to contain the virus, diminished Jokowi’s optimistic views about Indonesia or influenced his thoughts on Indonesia’s position in the world? Some of his international speeches offer something of an answer.

At the general debate of the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2020, Jokowi said that “there is no point of becoming the largest economic power in the midst of a sinking world.” This statement was out of step with his previous emphasis on economic pragmatism in foreign policy. His words signaled Indonesia’s globalist preference over its intention to pursue its narrow national interests, and its intention to play the role of bridge builder in international affairs. Jokowi also pushed the idea of U.N. reform, underlining the importance of the multilateral body to deliver, especially during times of crisis. At the end, he stressed Indonesia’s unwavering faith in the U.N., and that the country was ready to support its revitalization. The U.N. itself admits that it needs to adapt and reform as multilateralism has eroded under the weight of multiple challenges, such as climate change, great power rivalry, terrorism and – above all – the stresses  of the COVID-19 pandemic. The further practical question is how Indonesia can help reform the U.N.

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Apart from that, Jokowi in his speech made his views clear on the growing geopolitical rivalries in Indonesia’s region. He stated that war and conflict will benefit no one and that there is no point in celebrating victory among the ruins. This perception is reflected through Indonesia’s consistent stance of hedging in its relations with Beijing and Washington, standing in the middle without avoiding choosing either one.

During the G20 Summit hosted by Saudi Arabia in November 2020, Jokowi continued to advance this transformational vision by inviting the world’s largest economies to solve the pandemic by adopting a “big vision, big action, and big change,” as he put it. In a post-pandemic world, he said, Indonesia envisioned changes that would make the world economy more inclusive, sustainable, and resilient. He also emphasized that economic recovery must not neglect the protection of the global environment. Jokowi continued to show himself as a “reformist,” at least measured from his official statements in the international stage. Domestically, despite being hit hard by the Delta variant of COVID-19, Jokowi remains consistent in pushing reform in many aspects of Indonesia’s economy. In his national address on the country’s 76th anniversary of independence on August 17, he signaled his intention to reform the bureaucracy, law, human capital, and infrastructure, in addition to other structural reforms.

In terms of Indonesia’s environmental vision, Jokowi is criticized of being not ambitious enough in bringing forward the country’s net-zero emissions goals from its current target of 2070. The government has justified its target by taking into account national development priorities and its target of sustaining annual economic growth at 5-7 percent.  The Institute for Essential Services Reform views the government’s efforts as half-hearted, prioritizing economic development over environmental protection. This unambitious net-zero target seems to contradict Jokowi’s attempts to position as a global environmental leader.

Ahead of the climate change summit in Glasgow in November of this year, Jokowi attended the Virtual Leaders’ Summit on Climate, an initiative of U.S. President Joe Biden. The Indonesian leader re-iterated his government’s seriousness in controlling climate change, and presented Jakarta’s success in tackling deforestation, calling on other countries to take concrete actions and lead by example. Jokowi added that Indonesia and other developing countries will follow the global targets if developed nations are also credible with their commitments. However, environmentalists argue that Indonesia is wrong to take this “wait-and-see” approach toward the developed states, and has missed the opportunity to be a global leader on climate efforts.

Regarding health issues, Jokowi and his administration have expressed serious concerns about the  global vaccine gap and have called on the international community to double vaccine production in order to achieve health resilience. At the 2021 Global Health Summit in May, Indonesia expressed its readiness to become a vaccine production hub for the Southeast Asian region. Indonesia’s global vaccine strategy arguably has worked well through what Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has described as “health security diplomacy.”

Comparably, Jokowi at this month’s 76th Session of the UNGA encouraged the reorganization of the global health security architecture and the establishment of a standardized crossborder global health protocol. In his speech to the session, he reiterated his concerns about  the politicization of the pandemic and the discrimination against developing nations, arguing that the standardization on vaccines criteria would help create a fairer post-pandemic world. Today, China’s vaccines, for instance, are not approved in many countries. He also underlined the expectation that developing nations will participate equally in building global climate resilience. In the transformation on energy and technology, Jokowi said that the world must facilitate the involvement of developing states, not only as users but also producers. This time Jokowi did not address the idea of U.N. reform, raising the question of whether Indonesia remains committed to reforms of the multilateral system.

The vision of a leader can to a certain extent be discerned through his or her public speeches. Jokowi is no different. It is important that we understand his current views, particularly towards the future, and use them as a benchmark to measure whether his policies become reality or remain a political wish. At the end of his recent speech at the UNGA, Jokowi said “It is a duty for the leaders to give a hope for the world’s future.” It is true that hope is important, but global challenges can’t be tackled by hope and beautiful speeches alone; they also need concrete steps and actions.