During his first term in office, Indonesian President Joko Widodo was a reluctant and uncomfortable participant on the global stage. Secure with his popularity at home and facing a long and challenging domestic agenda, Jokowi cringed with the global requirements of his job – engaging in diplomatic niceties and the pomp and circumstance of state visits. Something has clearly changed in his second term, as the president has taken an assertive position on Myanmar and, with Indonesia holding this year’s G20 presidency, he visited Ukraine and Russia in late June, an unprecedented act of statesmanship by an Asian leader during a war. In July, the president traveled to China, South Korea and Japan, all three G20 members.
Jokowi’s visits to Kyiv and Moscow, where he met counterparts Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin, respectively, were an opportunity for the leader of the world’s fourth most populous nation behind China, India and the United States (and the country with biggest Muslim population) to express “concern for the impact of the war on humanity” and Ukraine’s importance in the global food supply chain.
In Indonesia and the region, reaction to Jokowi’s European war zone travels was lukewarm, a combination of cynicism and disinterest. “There seems to be mixed messages,” Airlangga University international relations scholar Radityo Dharmaputra told the broadcaster Al Jazeera. “Putin did not make any promises about fertilizer exports, so it would seem from things like that the trip was not a success.”
Still, the sight of an Asian, indeed a Southeast Asian, leader engaging in diplomacy on the global stage is a rare phenomenon. In the 1950s and 1960s, leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Sukarno, and even Mao Zedong had clearly defined interests in world affairs and were not hesitant to express their views. But for the most part, Asia’s chief executives have focused on home affairs, though one might argue that Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Japan’s Abe Shinzo, who was recently assassinated, achieved a level of global prominence and influence during their time in office and even after.
Despite its growing economic power and geopolitical significance, there is a provincial and small-minded aspect to how Asian leaders conduct diplomacy these days. The focus is in protecting a narrow self-interest, which I hasten to add is unobjectionable and the fundamental nature of how a country interacts with the world. At the same time, there is no reciprocity from Asia to the attention which the world showers on the region – through trade, investment, and in providing a regional security umbrella. When was the last time an Asian leader, China excepted, took an active interest in Africa, a continent which would benefit more from advice and assistance from Asia rather than from Europe’s paternalism?