April 28, 2022
JAKARTA – Next month’s meeting between ASEAN leaders and United States President Joe Biden in Washington, D.C., will be a golden opportunity for President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to save Indonesia’s Group of 20 (G20) presidency and the Bali summit scheduled for November.
While the Biden is likely to focus on punishing Russia and containing the rising global power of China, Jokowi will concentrate on persuading his US counterpart to tone down his threat to boycott the Bali summit until Indonesia can find a win-win solution.
All leaders from the 10 ASEAN states, excepting Myanmar, are expected to head to the US capital at Biden’s invitation to commemorate 45 years of ASEAN-US relations on May 12-13. The meeting was originally slated for March 28-29 but then postponed, because several ASEAN leaders were busy with their domestic agendas while Biden was preoccupied by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
The meeting’s postponement is already a clear indication that ASEAN is less dependent on Washington today than it was a few decades ago.
Myanmar’s junta leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing will be absent, as he has been barred from attending any ASEAN functions for reneging on his own promise to end the military’s violence against those who resist the junta’s coup on Feb. 1, 2021, which overthrew the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Last October, ASEAN held a virtual summit with the US, as well as similar meetings with the leaders of two other dialogue partners, China and Japan.
“It is a top priority for the Biden-Harris administration to serve as a strong, reliable partner in Southeast Asia. Our shared aspirations for the region will continue to underpin our common commitment to advance an Indo-Pacific that is free and open, secure, connected and resilient,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on April 16.
President Jokowi is currently facing one of his administration’s greatest challenges since he took office in 2014. Indonesia’s G20 presidency is expected to mark Jokowi’s most valuable diplomatic achievement, particularly in light of the little interest he has shown in foreign affairs. Despite the cracks among G20 members as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Jokowi remains optimistic that the leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies will gather in Bali to craft an action plan to realize Indonesia’s G20 theme, “Recover Together, Recover Stronger”.
The G20 comprises Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union.
Indonesia has set the focus of its G20 presidency on three main issues: the global health architecture, the digital transformation of the global economy and the energy transition.
There will be 184 main events throughout the year, consisting of one summit, 20 ministers’ and central bank governors’ meetings, 17 sherpa meetings, 56 working group meetings and 90 engagement group meetings. There are also 257 side events and Road to G20 Indonesia events.
Jokowi carefully choreographed what was to be his crowning achievement, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could lay his ambitions to ruin. The probability that the Russia-Ukraine war will spoil the party is very real, but knowing his character, Jokowi will never give up and will continue try until the very last minute to ensure that the show does go on, at any price.
After Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison have repeatedly threatened to boycott the G20 summit, unless host Indonesia bars Putin from attending the event as the US and its allies have demanded.
They softened their stance later by asking Indonesia to invite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to brief the leaders’ summit about the alleged atrocities Russia has committed in Ukraine.
Putin will be an unwanted guest, which is not a first. He left the G20 summit in Australia in 2014, because he felt he was unwelcome by the other G20 leaders after he annexed Crimea.
Putin will not decide to come to Bali on his own, so Jokowi needs to find a face-saving solution. As a Javanese, Jokowi is a master at making everybody feel respected and appreciated, although the reality might prove to the contrary.
For sure, Biden has a lot to offer to win the hearts of ASEAN leaders to back the US in its bitter rivalry with Russia. It almost certain, however, that the US President will be unable to draw Indonesia closer to the Western camp. Biden’s effort to entice Indonesia to join his multilateral action to isolate China will not work, either.
China’s claim over nearly all parts of the South China Sea has become a strong magnet for many ASEAN countries to get closer to the US as the only power that can force China to think twice before launching an open war or military action to ensure its ownership of the resource-rich marine area.
But it is clear that Biden has chosen his favorites. As reflected in the Washington visit of Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on March 29, Biden is prioritizing ASEAN states that already have close military ties with the US and are ready to accept more American troops and naval vessels either docking or transiting.
“Singapore and the United States are both committed to freedom of navigation as well as the unimpeded flow from violence and intimidation,” Biden told a joint press conference with Lee after their meeting.
Meanwhile, Lee said: “For more than 30 years, we’ve had an MOU on defense cooperation, signed in 1990 and recently renewed in 2019, which has provided the US military access to Singapore’s air and naval bases.”
The upcoming visits of Vice President Kamala Harris and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines in August and July further indicate that Washington will put aside, at least temporarily, any ASEAN states that openly expressed their refusal to follow the US’ divisive mantra of “you’re either with us or against us”.
It will not be easy for Jokowi to convince Biden to attend the Bali summit, but at least the US leader seems willing to give Indonesia a chance to save it.