On 24 August 2023, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo attended the 15th annual BRICS Summit in Johannesburg in Indonesia’s capacity as ASEAN Chair. The BRICS – a grouping of five major emerging economies including Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – recently announced they were expanding to include six more countries.
Indonesia was extended an invitation to become a permanent member of BRICS at the meeting, but Jokowi turned it down for now, explaining Indonesia would need to first consult with other ASEAN member countries. According to the Cabinet Secretariat, Indonesia intends to conduct a thorough investigation before making a final decision.
But this didn’t stop Indonesia’s president from expressing solidarity with other developing countries. In his speech, Jokowi argued the current world economic order as unjust, contributing to a widening economic development gap between nations. He also emphasised the need for developing countries to defend their rights to industrial downstreaming, through value added refinement of natural resources.
It seems Indonesia will remain outside BRICS for the time being. But big questions remain. Will Indonesia will join the bloc in the future? And does Indonesia share BRICS’ enthusiasm for challenging Western dominance of the international order?
Indonesia’s BRICS dilemma
The BRICS invitation presents a conundrum for Indonesia’s foreign policy. On the one hand, Indonesia has indicated it wants to create more space for developing countries to pursue their own national interests, particularly their economic interests.
Jokowi’s pointed remarks on industrial downstreaming, for instance, reflect a dissatisfaction with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) after it recently sided with Europe over Indonesia’s ban on nickel exports.
BRICS’ broader aspiration to challenge Western dominance of international institutions, like the WTO and the International Monetary Fund, is articulated through their establishment of the New Development Bank.
In addition, Indonesia maintains close bilateral relationships with leading BRICS members, particularly China. China is now Indonesia’s largest trading partner and Indonesia participates in Belt and Road Initiatives. China is an import source of investment for ambitious Indonesian development projects, such as its capital relocation and the development of a local electric vehicle industry.
On the other hand, Indonesia also needs to weigh up an increasingly unstable geopolitical environment, now heavily shaped by US-China competition. Indonesia needs to consider whether joining BRICS, which has China as a member, could be interpreted as aligning itself against the US.. The involvement of Russia in BRICS could also help alienate Indonesia from the United States and its allies, as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine.
There is a key debate within cabinet, with some ministers opposed to joining BRICS because it would offer few tangible economic benefits and contradict Indonesia’s long-standing “independent and active” foreign policy principle. This principle, which is enshrined in law, prohibits direct alignment with any great powers in a way that would sacrifice Indonesia’s national interest and international autonomy.
The timing is off
BRICS membership for Indonesia is unlikely to materialise anytime soon. And that is because, in this instance, domestic politics matters.
Joining BRICS is a big decision – and with an important presidential election just around the corner, there is little appetite for major changes in Indonesia’s foreign policy settings.
Jokowi will step down in 2024 and three presidential candidates have explicitly declared their intention to run in the election. None have indicated any radical departure from Jokowi’s foreign policy legacy but there are nuanced differences in their outlooks.
For instance, Prabowo Subianto, who will run for president for the third time, has expressed a preference for Indonesia to play a more prominent role in international politics. Prabowo might see engagement with BRICS as a means of amplifying Indonesia’s voice on the global stage, although this would present challenges for Indonesia’s relationship with the United States.
Similarly, Ganjar Pranowo, backed by the nationalist Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), has embraced a nationalist view of foreign policy and shown a willingness to cooperate with China, although he has not demonstrated the same foreign policy ambition as Prabowo.
Anies Baswedan, in contrast, has publicly rejected what he describes as a transactional foreign policy under Jokowi and has explicitly called for a values-oriented foreign policy. He has not set out how this would look in practice; however, his condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, would suggest less enthusiasm for BRICS.
And what of the future?
Jokowi may have closed the door on BRICS for now, but he was careful not to slam it shut. However, it is likely to remain closed until we see a change in incentives or a change in the geopolitical climate.
For now, the economic incentives for joining BRICS are missing. In his annual speech to the national legislature, the DPR, in August, President Jokowi emphasised the material benefits of international engagement for Indonesia’s economic development – and this is something BRICS is yet to offer.
So far, BRICS has been more about challenging West western hegemony than global South-South cooperation. If BRICS can propose a more tangible package of support for the economic development of its members, this might change the calculus for Indonesia.
Perhaps more importantly though, current global geopolitical tensions significantly raise the stakes for Indonesia. With Russia still engaged in its invasion of Ukraine and the US-China trade war continuing to rage, joining BRICS could too easily be seen as taking sides.
Indonesia might consider joining BRICS if the incentives were to improve and the geopolitical costs could be contained – but there are few signs of either happening any time soon.