Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is due to meet China’s Supreme Leader Xi Jinping today in Beijing, on the first leg of a three-nation East Asian tour aimed at bolstering Indonesia’s presidency of the G-20 economic grouping.
The Indonesian leader arrived in Beijing last night, ahead of the first face-to-face meeting with Xi since the Winter Olympics in February. It is also the first time since the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic that Beijing has individually welcomed a head of state visiting Beijing. After today’s meeting with Xi, Jokowi will leave for Japan and South Korea for talks with their respective leaders on July 27 and 28.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters last week that while in Beijing, Jokowi would also meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, and the agenda for his East Asia tour would focus on trade and investment.
“As we know, these three countries are strategic partners of Indonesia in the economic field. And these three countries are also strategic partners of Indonesia and ASEAN when we talk about regional issues,” she said, Channel News Asia reported. “The purpose of the visit is to discuss strengthening economic cooperation, especially in the areas of trade and investment.”
Since taking office in 2014, Jokowi has looked to China to bolster its national economic agenda, which focuses on attracting foreign investment and improving internal connectivity in the vast Indonesian archipelago. China is the country’s biggest trading partner – two-way trade reached $110 billion last year – and Retno told reporters last week that it was the third-largest investor in Indonesia, with a value of total investment of approximately $3.2 billion in 2021.
All this makes China a potentially key source of foreign investment for the construction of the new capital Nusantara on the island of Borneo, the project inherited from Jokowi, which the government hopes will begin construction next month, in order to to start moving government offices by the end of Jokowi’s second term in 2024. An observer says the visit is also expected to see talks of the high-speed rail project linking the capital Jakarta and Bandung, which involves Indonesian and Chinese state-owned enterprises, but which has been delayed by delays.
Jokowi’s approach to China reflects the careful balance between economic opportunity and strategic imperatives that has characterized his approach to the country. Recent relations between Beijing and Jakarta have not been without tension, particularly in the South China Sea, where parts of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone are bisected by the maximalist maritime claim of the “line in nine dashes’ of China. Indian media last week reported that the Indonesian Navy was in advanced talks to acquire the powerful BrahMos supersonic anti-ship missile, following a series of clashes between the two nations in recent years.
More generally, the overriding motive for the East Asia tour is the G-20 summit in November. Indonesia currently holds the annual presidency of the economic forum, but its agenda has been strained by the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, a member of the grouping. Jokowi invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to the G-20 summit in Bali in November, courting tensions with Western G-20 members and threatening to derail Indonesia’s focus on economic cooperation and recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic. If Jokowi is to keep his economic program on track, support from China, Japan and South Korea will be crucial. (Xi is also expected to break his two-year COVID-19 isolation to attend the summit, potentially after securing a third term at this year’s Chinese Communist Party National Congress.)
The G-20 presidency and the complications posed by the Russian-Ukrainian war have prompted an unusual flurry of diplomatic activity from Jokowi, who is not known to have a particular interest in foreign affairs. These include his visits to Germany and Russia, both G-20 members, and Ukraine, the latter the first by an Asian leader since the Russian invasion.
While it may be tempting to interpret this wave of foreign visits, including this week’s tour of East Asia, as a sign of new diplomatic activism on the part of the Indonesian leader, the star Guiding its journey around the globe remains domestic concerns: keeping the G-20 Presidency on track, securing Ukraine’s food exports and securing much-needed foreign investment. As always, the national enjoys primacy in Jokowi’s approach to foreign affairs.