Editorial: Nusantara Diplomacy

Editorial Omong-Omong

4 min read

The project of developing new capital for Indonesia to replace Jakarta seems to be the center of what President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo  is doing in the last stage of his term, including his ventures on a highly unusual international activism since early this month.

After struggling to find investors to help finance the controversial Rp 500 trillion (US$30 billion) new capital project in East Kalimantan, he has decided to actively embark on international ventures he otherwise would have been trying to avoid by travelling this week to three Asia’s biggest economies — China, Japan and South Korea — in an attempt to seek financial help for his beloved project.

Jokowi has done all he could to keep the project floating domestically, including allowing his new brother in law to stay as the chief justice of the Constitutional Court, a state institution which has become the last hope for justice in this country to make sure that a controversial law which was specifically passed to accommodate his final and most ambitious project – a planned city within a forest in East Kalimantan to replace Jakarta as the country’s capital – can’t be legally overturned.

The planned city which is named Nusantara has been very controversial from the beginning, with civil society groups pointing to how the government and lawmakers had been in rush to pass the law supporting it, and accusing it as mostly serving the interests of some political and business elites, including the alleged pre-distribution of the capital’s lands to a handful of people close to Jokowi. Many have also accused the government to have opened possibility of massive destruction of Kalimantan forests, one of the world’s biggest natural forests, as well as violating the basic rights of the indigenous people living in the area.

A number of groups have separately filed legal action against the law with the Constitutional Court. The results? All lawsuits against the law have been thrown out by the court, allegedly thanks to the role of the Constitutional Court chief justice, Jokowi’s brother in law.

Previously, Jokowi and his close aides have been struggling to attract local and foreign investors to help finance the planned city because such legal and political uncertainties.

With the legal hurdles seemingly straightened out, Jokowi travelled since Monday to Asia’s three biggest economies to sell the planned city to Chinese, Japanese and Korean officials and businesspeople. While the trips must be looked in this perspective, foreign media and observers again mistakenly see it through the lens of Indonesia’s G20 presidency or Jokowi’s playing balancing role in the China-US rivalry in Asia-Pacific.

There are no such things, or at least only a side activity if anything at all.

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The fact that Jokowi then met a gathering of Japanese and South Korean businesspeople, offering them attractive returns if they invested in the new capital confirms suggestion that he won’t touch foreign affairs unless it offers him tangible economic benefits. That’s what we learned also from his trip to Europe, Ukraine and Russia.

It’s highly unusual international activism for Jokowi to met on Tuesday with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang before leaving for Tokyo to hold talks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday and then to Seoul to meet South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in the following day.

Such visits to Asia’s biggest economies followed Jokowi’s high-profile trips to Germany to attend the G7 meeting, Ukraine, Russia and United Arab Emirates early this month.

To show just how unusual this activism is, Jokowi’s international trips this month exceed all international visits he made throughout his previous eight years in office.

For a president whom the Economist says “has evinced next to no interest in foreign affairs” and “whose knee starts to bounce impatiently up and down while his eyes dart from left to right like a schoolchild desperate to escape detention” when asked about the region’s geopolitics, such a global activism seems an anomaly, even inviting suspicion.

So, why so sudden and so extreme?

We can approach this suspicion by asking this question: what is the most important thing for Jokowi right now in this late stage of his presidency?

People’s prosperity? Not so much as it’s already a little bit late to talk about that. Also, that phrase will continue to stay as a gimmick along his term. What about healthcare, infrastructure and economic development? Sure, we have heard them all the time.

Setting agenda for G20? This is the catchphrase to use to subdue everything else, which local international media seems to buy into. So, he travels all the way to China, Japan and South Korea to meet its leader respectively just to prepare for a meeting which can be and usually be done by officials lower than ministers? He comes to those three countries to meet these leaders whom he would meet or could meet personally in Indonesia in several months?

It’s actually normal for a leader to have a tour to several countries without any special occasion. But for Jokowi it seems to be a stretch. Unless, there is another more important goal related to his personal benefit. And the only reason most important to Jokowi right now or sometime before he steps down two years from now is the realization of new capital — Nusantara. Jokowi and his circles have been struggling to gather around US$30 billion needed to finance his grand plan of building a new capital somewhere in East Kalimantan. It will be a big loss and humiliation – for him and his circles – if he fails to realize this ambition after all the costs and promises.

The significance of developing this capital for Jokowi explains the motive behind his trips to these three Asia’s biggest economies. He needs a time alone – away from any other issues – to explain about the project and directly ask these leaders and businesspeople there their commitment to help him finance it after a number of potential partners raised their doubts over its legal and political certainty.

While he seemed to obtain Russian President Vladimir Putin’s commitment to help reconstruct the new capital during his visit to Moscow early this month, he knows Putin’s words are still not close to certainty. Even when he does join in, it’s far from enough.

It’s in this picture we should see Jokowi’s trips to the three Asia’s rich countries. And if it is true, then Indonesia’s foreign policy under Jokowi has lost its idealism and nobility as it merely a reflection of his and his allies’ personal interests, or short-sighted economic gains.

It could be potentially very damaging and humiliating for Indonesia as he sells to global world a controversial project still seen among many Indonesians as fishy and potentially be corrupted.

Editorial Omong-Omong

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