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Indonesia’s G 20 chairmanship: Balancing on a diplomatic tightrope

By James M. Dorsey

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Indonesia’s geopolitical plate is piling up as the archipelago state prepares to host the Group of 20 (G20) summit and associated gatherings in November, including the Religion 20 (R20), a high-level meeting of religious leaders, the first under the G20’s auspices.

The challenges and opportunities for Indonesia are multiple and often unique.

In June, Indonesian President Joko Widodo persuaded the leaders of the Group of 7, which brings together Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union, to join the summit in Bali of the G20, made up of the world’s largest economies, even if it is attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The G7 leaders had threatened to boycott the summit if Mr. Putin were invited in protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Even so, much can derail Mr. Widodo’s achievement in the months leading up to the summit, although he has, for now, prevented a fracturing of the G 20 even before the leaders convene.

Pulling the G20 back from what could have constituted a devastating fiasco is just one of the pitfalls, Indonesia has been seeking to maneuver. With two months to go until the Bali summit and a world mired in conflict, bifurcation, and economic crisis, Indonesia’s G-20 presidency is hardly out of the woods.

Insisting that Mr. Putin should attend the summit helps Mr. Widodo maneuver Indonesia through the minefields of a world increasingly polarized by the rise of civilizationalist leaders who think in civilizational rather than national terms, and the power struggle to shape the world order in the 21st century.

Yet, in a potential preview of the summit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov walked out of a meeting of G20 foreign ministers in Bali in July when Russia came under fire for its war in Ukraine.

The gathering ended without the traditional joint communique, chairperson’s statement and/or group photograph. It underscored the fact that Indonesia may have to walk a diplomatic tightrope to prevent the November summit from fracturing the G 20 beyond repair.

Mr. Lavrov’s walk-out underscored the risks stemming from the power struggle and the expansionist ambitions of civilizationalist leaders such as Mr. Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

They threaten to put a dent in Indonesia’s successful track record of being inspired by the principles of a 1955 conference in the Indonesian city of Bandung that gave birth to the non-aligned movement.

That has not stopped Indonesia from rejecting Chinese claims to territory in the South China Sea, refusing China’s offer to negotiate maritime boundaries, and at times conducting military exercises just beyond Chinese-claimed waters while maintaining substantial economic relations with the People’s Republic.

However, increasingly, Indonesia may find that non-alignment no longer is its best option, even if that would not necessarily mean that it would pick sides in the US-China divide.

What it does mean is that the G20 is the opportunity for Indonesia to showcase itself, on the back of its diplomatic acumen, as an attractive target for badly needed foreign investment and a regional power that has long flown under the radar.

To do so, Indonesia. one the world’s biggest coal exporters and carbon emitters, will have to clarify its stance on a host of issues, including climate change; perceived threats posed not only by China but also by Aukus, the trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States that is allowing Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines; and the mushrooming food and energy crisis that raises the specter of a global recession.

One way, Indonesia hopes to make its mark is a summit of religious leaders that is scheduled to precede the meeting of heads of government and state. The religious summit is expected to refashion the G-20’s erstwhile Interfaith 20 track or IF20 as the Religion 20.

But even that is not without its pitfalls.

Organised by Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and the Islamic world’s foremost democracy, in cooperation with the Indonesian government, the R 20 constitutes at first glance a significant shift away from the approach of the IF 20.

In contrast to the IF 20 that was dominated by scholars and activists, the R 20 intends to bring together religious leaders to globally position religion as a source of solutions rather than problems. It is a call that resonates coming from the world’s most populous Muslim majority country and democracy.

Some 200 religious leaders and politicians, including Nahdlatul Ulama general chairman Yahya Cholil Staquf, World Evangelical Alliance secretary general Bishop Thomas Schirrmacher and former US ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon are expected to attend the summit.

On the surface of it, the R 20 constitutes an opportunity to energize the world’s major faith groups to rally around shared civilizational values that would empower religion as a force for good that goes beyond lofty statements that are not worth more than the paper they are written on.

That is a tall order given the role that religious and identity groups play in perpetuating rather than resolving conflicts based on international law, justice, and equity.

Think of the Russian Orthodox church as a driver of extreme Russian nationalism and the definition of Russia as a civilizational rather than a national state, resulting in the invasion of Ukraine and the potential threat to other former Soviet republics.

Or the uncritical support by Christian and Jewish groups of Israeli policies that violate international law, deny Palestinian rights, and long-term put at risk Israel’s existence as a democratic Jewish state.

The R20’s organizers appear to have opted, at least for now, to co-organize the summit with the Muslim World League rather than representative non-Muslim faith groups less beholden to a government.

The League is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vehicle to garner religious soft power, help polish the kingdom’s tarnished image, and propagate a socially liberal but autocratic interpretation of Islam that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler.

An R20 press release quoted the League’s secretary general, Mohammed al-Issa, as saying that “working alongside Nahdlatul Ulama…will strengthen our mission. This partnership with Nahdlatul Ulama will serve as an excellent platform for dialogue that will amplify and extend the Muslim World League’s noble mission.”

Even so, the R 20 could undergird Mr. Widodo’s vision of applying the principles of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the G 20.

Indonesian officials argue that the nature of ASEAN has allowed its ten members, despite their different political and economic systems, to prevent the once war-torn region from confronting another abyss and finding ways to peacefully manage or resolve disputes and tackle common problems.

Like with the religious summit, Indonesia faces a tall order in attempting to pull back from the brink a world consumed by the war in Ukraine as it seeks to maneuver the pitfalls of mounting tensions between the United States and China over issues like Taiwan that, like Eastern Europe, could spark a war with a global fallout.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.