We Expected More Surprises, Mr. President

I had an interesting chat with a friend of mine yesterday, as he asked me of what I think about President Joko Widodo’s speech at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly’s 75th Session.

My answer was simple: I am not impressed. As I said to a friend, I expected more of The Avengers or Game of Thrones, more Thanos or White Walkers. But there is none of that in the speech.

President Joko Widodo addressed the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly.

I am unimpressed especially because this is the first time in six years, an Indonesian President addressed the UNGA himself. Previously, he has always been represented by the then-Vice President Jusuf Kalla.

Some speculate that the president is willing to address this year’s because he does not have to travel to the US to give the speech. Some other speculate that his current Vice President may not be the perfect match for the spotlight in the UNGA. We never know.

Let’s start with the basics. What did the president say?

  • He calls for cooperation in producing and distributing vaccines to all nations around the world.
  • He calls out the US and China for their deepening rivalry (not by name).
  • He reiterates his support for Palestine.
  • He mentions the Indo-Pacific cooperation.
  • He calls for the UN reform.

In the 9-minute speech that he delivered yesterday, I can safely say that there is nothing new there.

We knew that Indonesia always supports the cause of the Palestinian people. What is new in the Middle East region is the US-brokered peace deal.

In case you missed it, the US has just brokered a deal between Israel and UAE for them to recognize each other and established diplomatic relations. This deal is then followed by the same deal struck between Israel and Bahrain. This made UAE and Bahrain the third and fourth Arab country to normalize relations with Israel. The US, too, has brokered a Serbia-Kosovo deal, which will allow both countries to work economically — and as a side dish to the deal, they will both open diplomatic missions in Jerusalem in exchange for Israel’s diplomatic recognition to Kosovo.

When Australia under Scott Morrison in 2018 was mulling over the idea to move their embassy to Jerusalem, the country was stormed by the Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs’ wrath and anger that she delivered through WhatsApp to her Australian counterpart. She threatened that Indonesia would pull out of the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA).

This time, the tide is calmer. She did not mention anything about hurting trade with UAE and Bahrain. A friend said to me that this is because Indonesia relies on UAE for COVID vaccine, among other countries. The president too, did not mention anything about the deals in his address to the UNGA.

But it clearly rises one’s eyebrows that Indonesia does not say anything about Serbia’s and Kosovo’s move (at least in the UNGA). Despite the fact that Kosovo is a Muslim-majority country in Europe, Indonesia has been leaning to Serbia in the issue, instead of voicing support for a fellow Muslim-majority country of Kosovo.

The president, as we know, said something about UN reform. But there was no specifics. Indonesia has just ended its UNSC presidency, which lasted for a month on August 2020. Indonesia has been a non-permanent member at the UNSC for almost two years, since the beginning of 2019, a term that will end by the end of this year.

Indonesia could have voiced support for India, a strong partner for Indonesia, and a fellow developing country. India is an asset for Indonesia in its Indo-Pacific cooperation. Both are among world’s biggest democracies. Both are members of the G20. There are a lot of similarities in both countries that can be capitalized for deeper and further cooperation.

Sadly, Indonesia did not mention anything about India’s bid for a UNSC permanent seat. Four out of five UNSC permanent members have voiced — or somewhat voiced — their support for India’s bid (US, UK, France, Russia).

True, the president mentioned ASEAN twice in his speech, mentioned Indo-Pacific region once, and mentioned the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific once. But for an outsider who does not know about ASEAN or ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific, what would the mentions do?

The president could have called out the US and China by name, to not push middle powers to get caught up in their rivalry. The president could have pushed for a middle power leadership in the world, a some kind of a plurilateral cooperation. The president could have announced the revival of the Global Maritime Fulcrum doctrine that he proudly announced in the East Asian Summit in Myanmar back in 2014. But he did not.

The president’s debut at the UNGA might not impress us and might not meet our expectations. But at least, he finally wants to pay a little bit more attention to the UNGA. The president has been historically active in participating in G20, APEC, and ASEAN summits with a very limited number of absence from those summits. This year, finally the president wants to address the UNGA.

For Indonesia to truly emerge as a powerful middle power, and an emerging world-class economy, Indonesia must assume more of a leadership role in the world. As the saying of Uncle Ben from The Spider-Man goes: “with great power, comes great responsibility”.

International Relations enthusiast