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Man of Contradictions: Joko book a warning to Australia about a pragmatic president

Sydney Morning Herald - August 13, 2020

James Massola – One of Australia's most important strategic allies, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, is "interested in attracting investment from whomever has the most cash and the fewest conditions" to achieve his domestic economic goals, according to a landmark new book by Lowy Institute analyst Ben Bland.

And for now "that is the Chinese, who are building roads, bridges, power stations, and ports across Indonesia, in addition to the high-profile Jakarta – Bandung rail link".

Bland, a former foreign correspondent in Jakarta, Hong Kong and Hanoi for the Financial Times, has written the first English-language biography of Joko and it delivers a hard-headed assessment of the leader's priorities at a time of growing tensions between the US, China and south-east Asian nations over the South China Sea.

In a warning that will reverberate from Canberra to Washington, Bland writes that western leaders are "desperate for new partners in Asia to help it push back against Xi Jinping's China. Jokowi [the president's nickname], however, has no time for great-power politics".

Appropriately-titled "Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia", the book, which will be released on September 1, tracks Joko's rise from humble beginnings in a riverside shack, his success as a furniture manufacturer and on into the world of politics.

The author has interviewed the President more than a dozen times, dating back to Joko's time as the mayor of Solo, his period as governor of Jakarta and as president from late 2014.

Bland's familiarity with his subject and his deep contacts within the Indonesian political and economic establishment shine throughout this book.

It should be required reading for Australian politicians who – much as they misread Joko's predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was popular on the international stage but not well-regarded at home – frequently extol the virtues of the President as a free-trade-minded economic reformer, democrat and champion of religious tolerance while failing to see (or ignoring) his shortcomings.

Joko's enthusiasm for bilateral trade agreements, such as the one signed with Australia in early 2020, is a case in point.

The deal is "hardly part of a broader strategy to embrace free trade. When talking to domestic audiences, he usually shows his nationalistic streak, repeating [former president] Sukarno's calls for Indonesia to 'stand on its own feet'."

Bland warns expectations of Joko are too high with many in Canberra "hoping that Jokowi will open up the Indonesian economy to Australian investment and stand up in the region as a balancing force against China".

"But Jokowi has shown little interest in regional leadership and, in any case, he remains constrained by Indonesia's deep-seated commitment to maintaining strategic autonomy and avoiding foreign entanglements.

Man of Contradictions balances a sympathetic view of Joko's significant achievements in building desperately-needed road and rail infrastructure that has been delayed, in some cases, for decades with criticism of his at-times chaotic governing style.

Bland is critical of Joko's handling of the coronavirus pandemic during which the government "demonstrated many of its worst traits: a disregard for expert advice, a lack of trust in civil society, and a failure to develop a coherent strategy".

The result has been two million unemployed, a potentially decade-long setback in curbing poverty and the exposure of a weak health system – to say nothing of the country's 128,776 cases and 5,824 deaths, one of the highest in south-east Asia.

Joko's plans for a new capital city on the island of Borneo ("testament to his whimsical nature and his disorganised governing style") and his disengaged approach to foreign policy are also highlighted.

The President has "little regard for the traditional diplomatic showpieces", Bland writes. "In his first five years, Jokowi didn't attend a single UN General Assembly".

His evolving approach to politics – from a man of the people and outsider to an increasingly authoritarian insider who has grown ever-closer to and dependent on Jakarta's political elite – is criticised too.

"Jokowi doesn't like analysis, he likes action and decisions," one presidential adviser tells the author. "There was no proper analysis of which infrastructure projects would boost growth and productivity the most. Instead he just pushed projects depending on where he was visiting."

Bland's book should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand the leader of Australia's giant northern neighbour.

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/man-of-contradictions-joko-book-a-warning-to-australia-about-a-pragmatic-president-20200812-p55kyx.html