Indonesia’s rise to the presidency of the G20 is a testament to its remarkable transformation from a dictatorship on the brink of financial collapse in the late 1990s to one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and its third-largest democracy. On the diplomatic front, Indonesia has consolidated its position as a confident middle power by mediating regional conflicts and building a multilateral security architecture to check China’s territorial ambitions in Southeast Asia.

For President Joko Widodo, a turn at the helm of the G20 offers a chance to leverage Indonesia’s growing clout and seek international support for his ambitious development agenda that was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Now serving his second term, Widodo has launched a series of contentious infrastructure projects, including the construction of a new capital city. In a bid to attract foreign investment for these expensive ventures, his government has enacted a wide-ranging economic deregulation law, which labor unions and environmental groups staunchly oppose.

But when these plans to foster international cooperation for post-pandemic recovery were derailed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Widodo’s economy-centric view of the world constrained his ability to navigate contentious politics around the summit.

Sana Jaffrey
Sana Jaffrey is a nonresident scholar in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and is concurrently the director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), Jakarta.
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Indonesia’s efforts to maintain neutrality in the conflict and its initial reluctance to condemn Russian aggression were widely criticized. But Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi deftly positioned her country as a peacemaker by rebuffing Western leaders’ calls for excluding Russia from the summit and inviting Ukraine to attend the meeting as an observer.

Widodo, who has shown little interest in foreign affairs in the past, also took it upon himself to play the role of a mediator. In June 2022, he visited Kyiv and Moscow to urge a ceasefire, secure a grain corridor from Ukraine, and resume fertilizer exports from Russia. The highly publicized visit failed to achieve any of its stated objectives, and it resulted in some embarrassment when Widodo overplayed his hand by declaring that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had entrusted him to deliver a private message to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Ukrainian officials wasted no time in refuting these claims and made it clear that if they had a message for Putin, it would be delivered directly. Regardless, the tour was promoted as a great success at home, with senior officials boasting to the local press that world leaders were lining up to ask for Widodo’s help in securing world peace.

Despite Indonesia’s best efforts, this week’s summit is likely to be dominated by the conflict. Side events held in the lead-up to the summit have already seen high drama. In April, top finance officials from Canada, the UK, and the United States staged a walkout during remarks by their Russian counterpart. In July, it was Russia’s turn to storm out of the foreign ministers’ meeting in response to Western condemnation of the invasion.

Even confirming attendance has been a challenge, leaving Widodo to personally call leaders and urge them to share their plans. U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping are among those who have already arrived in Bali. Putin, who had previously committed to attending, is no longer planning to be present in person. This may make it possible for Zelenskyy to address the gathering in a virtual session, as he had previously refused to make an appearance in Putin’s presence.

Indonesian officials have been lowering expectations about the summit’s success by acknowledging that rising geopolitical tensions are making it impossible to do business as usual. But in an extraordinary statement, Widodo expressed his concerns about rising tensions overshadowing the meeting and insisted that “the G20 is not meant to be a political forum. It’s meant to be about economics and development.”

In part, Widodo’s frustration with politics around the summit stems from Indonesia’s dogged efforts to shield Southeast Asia from great power rivalries. The strategy of managing its strategic interests through consensus-based regional institutions is quickly becoming outdated in the face of intensifying U.S.-China competition. One recent indication of this failing approach is the deep divisions that emerged within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations over the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine deal that Australia signed with the United States and the UK to curb China’s influence in the region. 

But Widodo’s personal distaste for contentious politics, which he views as an obstacle to economic progress rather than as a process for negotiating priorities, has also been a distinct feature of his governance at home.

Since his election in 2014 as a political outsider, Widodo’s impatient pursuit of his often-incoherent economic development agenda has left little room for opposition. He has drawn rival political parties into an oversized parliamentary coalition with a mix of lucrative ministries and interventions in internal leadership races. Following a bitter battle for reelection in 2019, he shocked supporters by inviting his challenger, Prabowo Subianto, to join his government as the minister of defense.

Widodo’s use of heavy-handed measures to manage less pliant opponents have prompted comparisons with the former president and dictator Suharto. His allies in parliament are passing highly unpopular bills at an alarming rate while undermining judicial oversight by recalling unfavorable justices and extending the tenure of those who are sympathetic to the president’s agenda. Widodo’s supporters, who include powerful businessmen, have repeatedly floated the idea of amending the constitution to allow him a third term as president.

Blocking democratic channels for public participation has spilled dissent into the streets. Amid rising unemployment and soaring food prices, labor groups and student activists have held massive protests against Widodo’s deep-cutting economic reform. But his government, dominated by former military and police generals, has responded to critics with a level of repression and harassment not seen since the collapse of Suharto’s authoritarian New Order regime in 1998.

Given these domestic experiences in managing discord, where economics generally trumps political differences and the rest can be managed with coercion, it is no wonder that Widodo is irked by Western leaders’ willingness to let a costly conflict get in the way of productive deal-making at the G20 that he had hoped for.

Still, the fact that the G20 summit is being held as scheduled is largely due to the tireless efforts of Indonesia’s highly skilled diplomats, who have pulled all stops to claim their country’s long-due place on the global stage. Putin’s absence from the meeting may make it easier for Widodo to lead the proceedings without a major incident. The meeting between Biden and Xi could still give Widodo room to tout his peacebuilding credentials at home. 

Regardless of the outcome, however, the event would be a success if it results in wider international recognition for Indonesia’s indispensable role in the world economy and its hard-won democratic achievements, which are now under serious threat but still offer invaluable lessons for building representative institutions in hard places.

For Indonesia, the experience of heading the G20 will leave it better prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. The current fiasco should serve as a reminder that neutrality and multilateralism cannot guarantee Indonesia’s economic prosperity and that maintaining autonomy in an increasingly polarized world will require long-term investment in a more diverse range of diplomatic levers. Most importantly, its leaders would do well to remember that Indonesia’s current prestige on the world stage springs in large part from the stability provided by its democratic institutions, which must not be compromised for short-term economic gain.