From G20 to U20, Indonesia replenishes its middle power status

Unlike the G20, the U-20 World Cup will draw the attention of the global public and not only the political and foreign policy elites who had followed the G20.

Endy Bayuni

Endy Bayuni

The Jakarta Post


President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (right) gestures as United States President Joe Biden (front, left), German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (back, left), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (back, center) and other leaders walk together during a tree planting event at Taman Hutan Raya Ngurah Rai Mangrove Forest, on the sidelines of the Group of 20 Summit meeting in Nusa Dua, Bali, on Nov. 16, 2022. (AFP/Mast Irham/Pool)

January 3, 2023

JAKARTA – In 2022, Indonesia passed the middle-power test with flying colors. The country capped the year-long Group of 20 presidency against all odds with a summit in Bali in November that was not only well-attended, but also came out with a joint statement after bridging the division among the members of the 20 world’s largest economies over the war in Ukraine.

Now in 2023 comes another big test whether Indonesia has the credentials to stake its claim as a rising middle power in Asia and in the world when it hosts the under-20 world soccer tournament. In many respects, this is a much bigger test than leading the G20 last year and certainly more global and more telling than chairing ASEAN this year.  

The FIFA U-20 World Cup, which will take place in May and June, will attract at least the 23 other participating countries and given the increasing popularity of soccer worldwide, the tournament will attract many more nations. Unlike the G20, the U-20 World Cup will draw the attention of the global public and not only the political and foreign policy elites who had followed the G20.

The global spotlight will be on Indonesia, not of the same scale as when Qatar hosted the soccer World Cup in November 2022, but far more than what the G20 Summit ever did. With good preparations, Indonesia can capitalize on this opportunity to help replenish its status as a credible middle power.

The G20 presidency proved that Indonesia has what it takes to be a good host and organizer and given the challenges facing the group, quite an effective global leadership. Kudos to the government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo for pulling off what for a while looked like an impossibility.

We are not expecting the U-20 national team to make much of an impact. We are not even in the top 100 in the FIFA ranking. As host, Indonesia has an automatic right to participate while other nations must compete for the remaining 23 slots. Indonesia can make an impact globally by being a good host and organizer of the tournament and given the global spotlight, Indonesia can show that it has the necessary credentials to be a global power to reckon with.  

With its growing international profile, Indonesia will inevitably come under greater scrutiny by the global public when it hosts the U-20 tournament. Qatar’s experience is instructive when some of its values, policies and practices were questioned. These include its human rights record, from the deaths and conditions endured by migrant workers to LGBTQ and women’s rights.

Indonesia, whose 270 million population is nearly 100 times that of Qatar, has all these problems and a lot more. But scale should never be an excuse or a pretext for not addressing them. With the global spotlight on Indonesia and in this day and age of the internet, we should have no skeletons in our closet.

Indonesia already won the accolade as the third largest democracy in the world and the largest democracy among the Muslim-majority countries. These accolades come with the expectation that the nation meets all its human rights obligations, or at the very least, is genuinely seen trying to.

Indonesia is already submitting its human rights records for periodic reviews at the Human Rights Council and should take note of the failings, shortcomings and recommendations that other council members raised.

Indonesia has overcome one barrier by agreeing to receive Israel, one of the few countries already qualified for the U-20 World Cup, although it has no diplomatic relations. The government has promised to provide adequate security for the Israeli soccer team when it comes to Indonesia.

But other issues may still haunt Indonesia in the runup to the U-20 tournament, such as the increasing militarization of Papua, the persecution against religious minorities and the LGBTQ communities, the massive deforestation and Indonesia’s lack of commitment to move toward net-zero emission. Even the new penal code, passed by the House of Representatives in December 2022, raised questions abroad about Indonesia’s commitment to protecting freedom and privacy.

Foreign journalists covering Indonesia, including those residing in the country, are complaining about the increasing difficulties for them of getting visas and stay permits. This hardly befits the image of a country seeking to build its credentials as a credible middle power.

These are issues that Indonesia must address even if it does not host the U-20 World Cup and irrespective of what other countries think. The added external pressures are the consequence of Indonesia wanting to build a higher international profile and to play a larger global role, in sports and as elsewhere.

There are certain expectations placed on aspiring middle and big powers and one of them being their ability to meet certain norms that are universal, including on human rights. Just because the United States and China, the two big powers, are not meeting them should not be used as an excuse or a shield for Indonesia.

The middle power status confers influence and responsibility on Indonesia, at home and globally. But respect does not come automatically. This is something Indonesia needs to work hard to earn. By the looks of it, we have plenty of homework and not much time before the global spotlight turns on us again in the coming months before the U-20 World Cup kicks off.


The writer is senior editor at The Jakarta Post.

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