Jokowi comes to Washington with a sensitive yet promising to-do list

Even as Indonesia seeks to assert its global leadership role, President Joko Widodo, colloquially known as Jokowi, views foreign policy largely through the lens of its impact on domestic matters. His upcoming meeting on November 13 with US President Joe Biden at the White House, after which he will travel to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Week in San Francisco, will reflect this mentality. 

As Chatham House’s Ben Bland effectively asserts in his excellent biography of Jokowi, the former businessman—who started in politics as a local mayor, no less—is laser-focused on domestic issues and economic development, attributable to both his professional background and the sheer scale of Indonesia’s economic needs.

One way this is reflected is in his infrequent overseas travel. He didn’t attend the United Nations General Assembly until his sixth year in office, and he may have only done so because it was held virtually. His 2022 trip to Russia and Ukraine was a high-profile exception. But in that case the domestic impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was arguably the impetus for the trip, along with keeping the Group of Twenty (G20) Summit that Indonesia hosted later that year on track.

His visit comes at a sensitive moment in Jakarta and Washington due to cascading global challenges and presidential elections in both countries in 2024. Despite these sensitivities, Jokowi has a promising opportunity to advance progress on three issues important to securing his legacy during his final year in office: economic development, geopolitics, and the conflict in Gaza.

Economic development and job creation

As a country with 1.7 million young people entering the workforce annually, economic development and job creation are understandably among Jokowi’s top priorities. The prospect of economic strife casts a long shadow over Indonesian leaders, as economic crises have historically led to societal upheaval, violence, and regime change. They have even raised the specter of the country’s collapse. 

To meet Indonesia’s daunting economic needs, Jokowi has sought to improve infrastructure, foster a more favorable environment for foreign investment, incubate the country’s technology and critical minerals sectors, and mitigate the impact of climate change on the sprawling archipelago. In doing so, he has sought support from all sources willing to provide it, including but not limited to the United States, China, Japan, the European Union, Persian Gulf states, and Australia.

Expect Jokowi to push for action on market access, particularly in relation to critical minerals, as well as for investment in building a new capital for the country and transitioning to clean energy. The possibility of a US-Indonesia trade agreement on critical minerals has elicited pushback from a bipartisan group of US senators, who raised their concerns in a letter to the Biden administration in October. While these anxieties should be surmountable, they highlight the notoriously vexing nature of trade-related issues in US politics. By the same token, resource nationalism is a politically risky issue in Indonesia.

Geopolitics and regional stability

Like other Southeast Asian nations, Indonesia has expressed concern about growing tensions between the United States and China and doesn’t want to “pick a side” between the two behemoths. Jokowi has advanced this view, using his country’s perch as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) rotating chair to call in September for the bloc to “lower heated tensions, to thaw frozen state of affairs, to create room for dialogue, to bridge existing differences.

Indonesia is a proud nation that believes it can and will chart its own geopolitical course. While it has increased defense cooperation with the United States and sought greater maritime autonomy in the North Natuna Sea, it has also constrained its actions there and elected to move ASEAN’s first joint naval drills away from it to the South Natuna Sea, away from areas disputed by China. Jokowi was also a notable guest at the Belt and Road Initiative Forum in Beijing in October, which drew notably fewer heads of state than it had in the past.

At a time when China hawks are on the ascent in Washington, Jokowi’s message of de-escalation may not be well-received in certain corners, and a time may come when Indonesia is forced to pick a side. With that said, Jokowi’s perspective is one that needs to be heard more often by US officials, as it’s one held by nations across the Global South. The Indonesian leader stands to benefit at home by advancing it, and if his track record is any indication, he will do so in a delicate yet certain fashion in Washington.

The conflict in Gaza

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country, and the long-running conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians has always loomed large in Indonesian politics. As a recent editorial in the Jakarta Post put it, “Indonesia has consistently thrown its weight behind the Palestinian people’s struggle for independence under a two-state solution,” and it does not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel.

This mentality was on display earlier this week, when Jokowi held a press conference to announce the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip. Indonesia’s presidential candidates have latched onto the issue as well: former Governor of Jakarta Anies Baswedan spoke at a massive pro-Palestinian rally, former Governor of Central Java Ganjar Pranowo reiterated his support for Palestinian independence, and Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto was front and center at Jokowi’s press conference announcing the aid delivery to Gaza.

Jokowi needs to show Indonesians that he’s standing up for Palestinians, and Washington provides a tailor-made forum for doing so. But, by doing so, he risks raising the ire of some US officials, particularly in Congress where many members hold strongly pro-Israel views. Of all the issues on Jokowi’s agenda, this one may be the most challenging for him to navigate, and he will need to do so adeptly if he is to make progress on the rest of his to-do list.

Parker Novak is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub and the Indo-Pacific Security Initiative, housed in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He specializes in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands and previously served as the country director for a nongovernmental organization in Indonesia and Timor-Leste.

Further reading

Image: Indonesia's President Joko Widodo takes the stage to speak about the planned new capital Nusantara, at Ecosperity Week in Singapore June 7, 2023. REUTERS/Edgar Su