Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at a press conference following their meeting in Kyiv on June 29. Widodo travelled to Europe in summer, meeting both Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin, to lay the groundwork for the G20 summit in Bali. Photo: dpa
Inside Out
by David Dodwell
Inside Out
by David Dodwell

G20 in Bali is a big moment for middle powers like Indonesia, and a chance for Joko Widodo to shine

  • Indonesia has a valuable role to play at a time of bellicose US-China relations and the war in Ukraine
  • As G20 host, Indonesia’s president has worked to prevent the war from overwhelming the summit, and prefers to focus on tackling pragmatic economic issues

Speaking at a COP27 session on tracking carbon emissions, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had what every diplomat must regard as a nightmare moment. “The world is losing the race against the climate crisis, but I am hopeful because of you,” he opened. Then he paused, and flipped through the speech: “I think that I was given the wrong speech.”

A flurry followed and a fresh bundle of pages was handed to him. He apologised: “I am going to speak to a group of young people afterwards.”

It is a wonder in this peak season for global diplomacy that such mistakes don’t happen more often. From Sharm el-Sheikh, many of the world’s leaders will be flying to Bali for the G20, which starts on Tuesday, and on to the Apec Leaders’ Meeting in Bangkok. Many in our region will have missed COP27 because of the need to join the Asean summit in Phnom Penh last week.
While it is easy to dismiss this merry-go-round of jaw-jaw, such summits can provide a critical underpinning to multilateral efforts to tackle common issues like global warming, food security, worldwide inflation and the impending recession.

They may be particularly important after a two-year drought of face-to-face meetings because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

For some leaders, this is where legacies are built. And for none more so than Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, who prepares to host at least 17 world leaders in the calming tropical setting of Bali for the Group of 20 summit. Accounting for 60 per cent of the world’s population, 80 per cent of global gross domestic product and 75 per cent of trade, few summits can have more influence.


‘How to work it out’: Biden’s agenda for talks with Xi Jinping at G20 summit in Bali

‘How to work it out’: Biden’s agenda for talks with Xi Jinping at G20 summit in Bali
It will include US President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping, who are meeting for the first time in far too long. It will also include Guterres, who will hopefully bring the right speech.

The Bali summit provides the climax of Indonesia’s year of G20 presidency – an unusually high-profile role for a middle power that normally gives priority to its domestic challenges rather than pushing its weight around in global power circles.

It is at this time of particularly acute global stress – post-pandemic, amid increasing concern about the big-power arm-wrestling between the United States and China, and pressure from Russia’s reckless invasion of Ukraine – that Indonesia, as an iconic middle power, can play a valuable role. It is trusted by smaller powers because it has no pretensions for hegemonic power, yet large enough to exert pressure where needed.

Multilateralism isn’t dying – just the version led by the US

The moment is also particularly suited to Widodo, as the Indonesian leader is popularly known: a down-to-earth former furniture maker who has built a reputation at home for pragmatic policies that have effectively managed the inevitable stresses within a huge and diverse democracy.

Indonesia’s positioning as a determined non-aligned nation will bring valuable pressure to bear, in particular on the increasingly bellicose relations between China and the US. If Biden comes to Bali hoping for support against China, he is likely to be rebuffed. Indonesia agrees with most other Asian economies that they do not want a global decoupling, and do not want to be forced to pick sides between China and the US.

Clearly preferring to focus on economic and development issues rather than politics, Widodo has shown concern that the Russia challenge does not overwhelm the G20 agenda. His priorities are highly practical – to get deals on infrastructure building, phasing out the use of coal, establishing a regional digital payments system, and a road map for a carbon trading regime.


The bamboo-made two-wheelers behind the Indonesian president’s bicycle diplomacy

The bamboo-made two-wheelers behind the Indonesian president’s bicycle diplomacy

While Indonesia has its concerns over China’s increasingly muscular economic and military presence in the region, it values China as a critically important market, and welcomes numerous infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative.

Widodo has very successfully finessed such delicate challenges – which Mohammad Hatta, one of Indonesia’s founding fathers, once described as “rowing between the reefs”.

A recent Lowy survey of Indonesia is revealing: a massive 84 per cent of respondents say they want to stay neutral in any US-China conflict. And, while 49 per cent see China as a threat in the coming decade, it is noteworthy that 43 per cent also see the US as a threat.

Despite Indonesia’s traditionally low profile in global diplomacy, Widodo seems to have won support for his careful preparation for the G20 after an unusually high-profile Europe visit in June, when he joined the G7 summit in Germany, met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, and then travelled to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Zelensky’s G20 attendance – and Putin’s decision to send his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov – will probably please most participants. There will also be hopes that the long-overdue meeting between Biden and Xi will defuse US-China tensions that look dangerously out of control.

And if a successful G20 summit does not suffice to cement Widodo’s legacy before he steps down in 2024, he is doubtless confident that Indonesia’s chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 2023 will provide whatever burnishing he needs. Pragmatism, balance and non-alignment have served him and Indonesia well – middle powers can play a modest but valuable role when global powers try to get overly muscular.

David Dodwell is CEO of the trade policy and international relations consultancy Strategic Access, focused on developments and challenges facing the Asia-Pacific over the past four decades