“We refuse to be a pawn in a new cold war,” says Joko Widodo, the president of Indonesia. Jokowi, as he is known, is speaking in an interview at the presidential palace in Jakarta. It is a surprisingly tough message from a leader known for his conciliatory style.
Next week the Indonesian president will host what feels like the first global summit of a second cold war — the G20 leaders’ meeting in Bali. This will be the first G20 summit to take place since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. It is also the first since the surge in US-China tensions that followed the visit by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, to Taiwan in August.
Widodo has been president of Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, since 2014. But he presents a stark contrast to strongman leaders such as Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin. Dressed simply in a white shirt, black trousers and Indonesian-made trainers, he says his main aim at the G20 is to encourage dialogue. “We’re very worried about escalating tensions between the major powers.”
In trying to stay neutral in an emerging superpower conflict, Indonesia is reaching back to an older tradition. It played a key role in the foundation of the non-aligned movement at the Bandung conference of 1955 during the first cold war. The underlying instinct of Indonesia and many other non-western nations that will assemble in Bali remains the same — to navigate the tensions between superpowers and to avoid signing up to either camp.
Much pre-summit chat has focused on Putin and Biden sitting in the same conference room. But Widodo says that, based on a conversation with Putin last week, it is his strong impression that the Russian leader will not attend the Bali summit. There is some talk that Putin may choose to make a virtual appearance at the G20. But Widodo shrugs when this idea is put to him (and the Americans would doubtless strive to keep Putin on mute).
For the US, the bigger focus is Xi, who is definitely coming to Bali. The current assumption is that the Chinese leader will hold a direct meeting with Biden. Some senior US officials see this as an opportunity “to put a floor under the relationship”. But it is also distinctly possible that a direct meeting would be acrimonious and unsuccessful.
Unlike other US-China summits in recent decades, which took place after months of preparation, a Biden-Xi meeting in Bali would be pulled together at the last moment, without carefully pre-packaged announcements to give an impression of progress. One leading US policymaker compares it with the US-Soviet summits of the first cold war — high-stakes meetings, which took place on neutral ground.
For Indonesia and other countries of south-east Asia, the stakes are also very high. They have prospered greatly from decades of peace and prosperity in the region, underpinned by a stable security environment and strong economic growth in China. That formula is still working for Indonesia, which is projected to grow at well over 5 per cent this year — which Widodo thinks will make his country the fastest growing economy in the G20.
The desire for continuing geopolitical stability, which will allow for economic growth, also colours Widodo’s attitude to the Ukraine war. As president of the G20, he has travelled to both Kyiv and Moscow. But, for the Indonesians, the Ukraine war is not the all-consuming preoccupation that it is for western leaders. A lot of Widodo’s attention is on the second-order economic effects of the war and the impact it has on driving up global food prices. He describes the recent Russian threat (now withdrawn) to once again stop exports of grain through the Black Sea as “very provoking”.
Based on his recent conversations with Putin and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Widodo sees little immediate prospect of a peace settlement. Instead Indonesia is throwing its diplomatic energy into trying to solve a conflict in its own backyard — the civil war in Myanmar, which has also cost thousands of lives and turned hundreds of thousands into refugees.
As a leader Widodo has some similarities to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the recently re-elected president of Brazil. Both the Indonesian and Brazilian leaders have risen from humble origins and are proud of their connections with ordinary people. Both want good relations with the US, while retaining an innate scepticism about American motives, grounded in their own countries’ histories.
Widodo performs a similar balancing act on China. He knows that Chinese trade and investment are key to the development of the Indonesian economy. But he also knows that there are domestic critics — including Jusuf Kalla, his own former vice-president — who claim that China has too much influence inside Indonesia. Widodo waves that idea away, by pointing to the high number of jobs for Indonesians created by Chinese investment.
In geopolitical terms, Indonesia remains something of a sleeping giant. Despite the country’s huge size and geographical expanse (it spans four time zones), Widodo betrays no hint of an aspiration to be a superpower — or even the regional south-east Asian hegemon. He prefers instead to emphasise his country’s commitment to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
In an era of strongman politics and aggressive great-power nationalism, the Indonesian leader’s modesty and multilateralism make a refreshing change. It would be good if some of that spirit rubbed off on the other leaders at the G20.