Since taking over the G20 presidency from Italy late last year, the Indonesian government has worked hard to ensure its tenure is a success. The government has held various meetings ahead of this week’s Bali Summit, and has supported preliminary dialogues through various working and engagement groups of experts and key stakeholders.
Indonesia has adopted post-pandemic crisis recovery as the central theme of its G20 presidency, captured with the slogan “Recover Together, Recover Stronger”. Specifically, it has identified three main pillars for its presidency: digital health architecture, digital transformation, and sustainable energy transition. These goals reflect Indonesia’s transforming digital economy and growing investment in sustainable energy, as well as concerns about post-pandemic recovery.
But there is another motive behind the government taking preparations so seriously: the belief that a successful G20 presidency will be able to boost investment and accelerate economic development. Indonesia wants to attract investors to help finance Indonesia’s strategic development projects, including the controversial relocation of the national capital to Kalimantan, which will require huge financial support. Indonesia is hoping to use the G20 to boost its profile among potential investors.
As a result, Indonesia has gone well beyond the standard preparatory policy meetings. Its G20 logo has been splashed over public facilities, with large banners promoting the G20 Summit across the country. It has facilitated many side events to attract visitors ahead of the Summit, particularly in Bali. The government has also encouraged non-state actors to take part in the G20 engagement groups, including representatives from business, civil society, science, thinktanks, women, youth, labour, urban communities, and even religious groups.
But can these serious preparations for the G20 Summit deliver on the government’s aims?
To be fair, Indonesia’s preparation has resulted in several important milestones. Engagement groups have been well received by the government and many prominent international figures, including Hollywood star and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Anne Hathaway, will attend the G20 Summit. Most leaders of G20 member states will attend and hold bilateral meetings while at the Summit, which could allow Indonesia to demonstrate its capacity for international mediation, reflecting its “free and active” foreign policy doctrine.
In early November, Indonesia successfully hosted the G20 Religion Forum (R20), which was initiated by Nahdlatul Ulama and US-based organisation the Centre for Shared Civilisational Values. Many religious figures and organisations attended, including the Saudi-based World Muslim League and, somewhat controversially, India’s Rashthriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Indonesia has also been able to boost international visits to Bali, a key tourist hub whose economy suffered tremendously during the pandemic.
When the Russian invasion of Ukraine left the prospect of a successful G20 Summit in the balance, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo moved to invite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, despite Ukraine not being a member of G20. The invitation was followed by surprise formal visits to Kyiv and Moscow in June and July.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to be sceptical, particularly considering the actual role and functions of the G20. While the G20 Summit is an important meeting for world leaders, it has a weak institutional basis for policy implementation. The G20 is mainly a forum for policy coordination involving, primarily, finance ministers and governors of central banks, as well as personal representatives of leaders (so-called sherpa), with some input provided by engagement groups.
The G20 has no secretariat or implementing institutional bodies, so there is no guarantee of effective implementation of any agreements reached at the G20. Indeed, implementation of policy proposals from the meeting is unlikely unless major powers, particularly the United States and China, take the lead.
Of course, there is still space for diplomatic engagement at the G20. But Indonesia’s goal of attracting prospective investors will be constrained significantly by the uncertain global economic environment, with many countries now facing high inflation and stagnant economic growth.
This is not to mention the disastrous impacts of the Russian war on Ukraine, which has also affected global food and energy security. Indonesia is aware of the huge implications of the war on its G20 presidency, as indicated by Jokowi’s visit to Russia and Ukraine. But this visit had little impact – the grain deal that Jokowi was apparently hoping to broker was eventually handled by Turkey, and his visit certainly had no consequences for the conflict.
Moreover, although President Zelenskyy has confirmed his attendance at the G20 Summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin will be represented by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Even if Putin did attend, there is no guarantee that Russia would engage in talks, including on a commitment to uphold the Black Sea grain deal that is essential for global food security. The United States and its allies continue to place significant pressure on Russia, which led to walkouts at some G20 preparatory meetings.
Indonesia needs to accept that it does not have sufficient credibility or global clout to convince both sides to talk, even under the pretext of global food or energy security.
So, although Indonesia’s G20 presidency should not be considered a failure, it should be assessed critically. Indonesia seems to have incredibly high expectations for the summit, expectations that do not align with its limited mediating capacity and the uncertain global political situation.
Indonesia might be able to use the G20 presidency to boost its profile and this may eventually lead to more investment. But global economic uncertainty suggests the three major pillars of Indonesia’s G20 presidency (digital health, digital transformation, and energy transition) will remain largely unaddressed.
Indonesia should have more rational and realistic expectations about what can be achieved through the G20 and instead prepare for a role in which it has much greater influence: ASEAN chair in 2023. Indonesia has often been touted as the de facto leader of ASEAN, and analysts have pointed out that Indonesia’s “absent leadership” over the past year has led to uncertain regional efforts to resolve major security issues.
There are far greater prospects for Indonesia to have real impact as ASEAN chair, particularly in addressing ASEAN’s two main challenges: its position in the context of US-China rivalry in the Indo-Pacific, and the ongoing conflict in Myanmar.
Rather than being transfixed by the illusion of becoming a major global player in the G20, Indonesia should take its role in ASEAN more seriously and play a more productive leadership role in the region.