Editorial Board, ANU – Ahead of the Rome G20 Summit in October 2021, the G20 looked like it was in danger of losing the plot. What a relief, then, to see Indonesia bring the G20 back to its bread-and-butter global policy challenges as it takes over as its chair for 2022.
'Recover Together, Recover Stronger' is the slogan of Indonesia's year in the chair, which will focus on 'ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, promoting sustainable and inclusive economic development through the participation of small and medium-scale enterprises and digital economy'. Vaccines are a top priority. The countries that manufacture the vaccines, the developing countries that need them, and the rich countries that can subsidise them all meet around the G20 table. It's time for accountability for broken promises on vaccine equity, and sustaining the recent momentum behind the COVAX initiative.
Then there's economic recovery. As recent Christmas shoppers will know, global supply chains are still in disarray. One result is that inflation is back with a vengeance, and the prospect of interest rate hikes in the United States and other industrial countries in response makes it all the more important to use this year's meetings to get the G20's own Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) working properly.
It helps a great deal that Indonesia itself is in recovery mode after a tough two years in 2020 and 2021.
As Haryo Aswicahyono and Hal Hill write in this week's lead article, 'notwithstanding the serious loss of life' the country has suffered, 'Indonesia has not been deeply scarred by the pandemic. "Stability" in its various economic and political manifestations continues to be the cornerstone of political life'.
'Most important, the country has held together, the administrative and political apparatus has continued to function despite deep economic and social stresses. This is in notable contrast to the country's last major crisis ... ' say Aswicahyono and Hill.
Part of the story is President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo's seemingly unshakeable political dominance. Indeed, they write, he 'has if anything consolidated his political authority' over the course of the pandemic. Credit this in part to the uncompromising, frequently illiberal, attitude his government has taken towards political opponents. But the fact is that Jokowi's much-criticised subordination of health goals to economic goals has sympathy in a country with a huge informal sector and, as Aswicahyono and Hill point out, social security programs that remain 'modestly funded and not designed for a large-scale shutdown in economic activity'.
Indonesians are certainly recovering their optimism. A December poll showed 29 per cent of Indonesians felt their household finances were worsening – the lowest since March 2020, and down from a high of almost 60 per cent in March 2021.
72 per cent said they expected their financial position to improve in the coming year. Little wonder the president begins the year with a 71 per cent approval rating.
Having declared political victory against COVID-19, Jokowi faces a more serious foe: the expectation, or the reality, of his looming political obsolescence.
Jokowi's term is up in October 2024 and presidential elections are likely to be scheduled for earlier in that year. The most popular candidates now are the Governor of Central Java, Ganjar Pranowo, and Jokowi's defence minister, Prabowo Subianto. The design of the electoral system, though, means that who gets to run will be ultimately determined by backroom deals made among party bosses.
Even though the political elite and the media are turning their attention to the elections, Jokowi is determined not to let himself slip into lame duck status as his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono did not long into his second term.
Hence his eagerness to put the pandemic behind him and push ahead with improving the performance of state-owned enterprises, realising the reforms outlined in the 2020 Omnibus Law on Job Creation, ratifying the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and making progress on what Aswicahyono and Hill describe (perhaps too politely) as his 'grandiose' plans for a new capital city on the island of Kalimantan.
One hopes that Jokowi also sees the potential for legacy-building in the opportunities the G20 chairmanship offers. So far the world has known him as a thoroughly inwardly-focused politician who either leaves foreign policy to the bureaucrats, or thinks of it as an instrument to achieve domestic economic and political goals. Recently, though, he's thrown himself into constructive efforts at solving regional problems: witness the hands-on role Jakarta played in setting up ASEAN's summit in response to the Myanmar coup in 2021, and its leading calls for making the extent of Myanmar's participation in this year's ASEAN meetings conditional upon the junta following through on the commitments it made at the Jakarta summit.
With luck, Indonesia's G20 chairmanship will mark the belated emergence of a more proactive Jokowi foreign policy. In 2023 Indonesia will take over the chairmanship of ASEAN from Cambodia. The last time Jakarta had this job we were delivered the RCEP strategy, at least in its embryonic form. That's a high benchmark, and serves to demonstrate the opportunities for leadership that platforms like ASEAN and the G20 offer to Indonesia if it shows up with the right ambition. If Jokowi is looking for a legacy, this is a good place to hunt.
[The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.]