Jokowi’s visit to Ukraine serves as Asean’s barometer

21 Jul 2022 03:08pm
This handout picture taken and released by the Ukrainian presidential press service on June 29, 2022, shows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (R) and his Indonesian counterpart Joko Widodo shaking hands during a press conference as part of their talks in Kyiv. (Photo by AFP)
This handout picture taken and released by the Ukrainian presidential press service on June 29, 2022, shows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (R) and his Indonesian counterpart Joko Widodo shaking hands during a press conference as part of their talks in Kyiv. (Photo by AFP)

Jokowi’s visit to Ukraine serves as Asean’s barometer As Jokowi embarked on a diplomatic visit to war-torn Ukraine, it is inevitably a reflection of Asean’s posture.

Joko Widodo, or famously referred to as Jokowi, the Indonesian President embarked on a diplomatic visit to Kyiv and subsequently to Moscow, last month.

The diplomatic visit gained much international traction as Jokowi managed to meet with both Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, in Jakarta’s attempt to boost peace hopes. This undertaking took place amidst the ongoing raging of Russia against Ukraine, which has been over four months now.

Indeed, among the key takeaways of the visit are – Jokowi’s offer to ‘bridge communications’ between Kremlin and Zelenskyy and most importantly, for wheat exports making inroad to Southeast Asia.

It may appear somewhat peculiar as Indonesia and Southeast Asia region, by extension, are geographically distanced from the conflict. But recent development suggests that the region is not immune from its fallout.

It appears that the spill over of the war in Ukraine is continuing into this region, notably the rampant inflation.

As a matter of fact, Jokowi’s efforts to facilitate peace dialogues are framed within Jakarta’s bid to free up the blockade of food and fertilizer supplies, to which has contributed much to the soar in prices.

So much so that this diplomatic visit is dubbed as Indomie diplomacy. Indomie, a favorite staple to the majority of Indonesians has seen inflation taking place, of late.

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Prior to Russia’s so-called ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, Indonesia was among the top importers of Ukrainian wheat, and disruption to wheat supplies leads to further inflationary pressure. Furthermore, Indonesia’s palm oil prices continue to increase as the war has also wrecked the global vegetable oil supply and exacerbated a cooking oil crisis in the top palm oil-producing nation. And concurrently, at the regional level, the spill over effects are now more palpable than ever.

Throughout the Southeast Asia region has seen an increase in inflation from 3.1 per cent in December 2021 to 4.7 per cent in April 2021, with Indonesia alone recorded a 149 per cent increment, according to a report published by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Meanwhile, geopolitically, the issue of war in Ukraine has been dominating the regional conversation, especially since the incursion on Feb 24.

As a result, key Asean countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia have since walked diplomatic tightropes, as the trio is caught in between the West and Russia over the war.

To be sure, the West and its allies are ramping up pressure to further isolate Russia from international platforms.

Evidently, at the moment, division widens within multilateral forums as Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia are set to host summits such as the Group of 20 (G-20), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and East Asia Summit (EAS) later this year, to which Russia is a member of.

Just last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov walked out of a G-20 meeting of top diplomats in Bali after the Western-led denounced Russia’s continued shelling of Ukraine.

Back in May, the Apec Ministers for Trade were unable to produce a joint statement, as the economy members were involved in a somewhat contentious discussion in regards to reference to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

This pushed Thailand to come up with a statement under its capacity as the current Apec chair, instead of a diplomatic practice of a joint statement reflecting a united front among the economies.

In April, the delegates of the US, UK, and Canada had walked out on Russian delegates at the G-20 finance officials meeting in Washington.

To make matter worse, just this week, the finance ministers and central bankers of the G-20 failed to produce a joint statement, a sign of further fraying cohesion among the members of the premier economic bloc in the face of the Ukraine war.

As things stand, the trio still maintains the invitation to Russian leader Vladimir Putin to attend the summits, despite pressure from Western countries. And Jokowi went extra length, by inviting Zelenskyy to attend the G-20 Leaders’ Summit in Bali this November, in an attempt to project Indonesia’s ‘free and active' foreign policy – the country’s long-standing principle in its international affairs conducts.

Through this policy, it manifests Indonesia’s willingness to cooperate with all parties while at the same time maintaining balance, especially vis-à-vis major powers relation. Indeed, Indonesia as the G-20 host continues to carry the barometer of Asean value - that is maintaining strategic autonomy amidst domination attempts by other major and middle powers from outside the region.

Throughout its modern history, truth be told, the Southeast Asia region often finds itself at the crossroads of great power contention, in issues ranging from the US-China rivalry and the South China Sea dispute, to name a few.

More often than not, the Southeast Asia region is invariably serving as a platform for great powers competing for influence. But time and again, Asean as the driving force of the region has managed to circumvent any potential instability and uncertainty activities.

The strategy of public hedging or maintaining equidistance between major powers to keep its policy space remain open seems to be working well for the bloc.

Moreover, the established platforms for navigating the bloc and its member states especially in mitigating the adverse effects of strategic flux are equally important too.

The likes of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit (EAS), and the Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM), are platforms for Southeast Asian in managing the regional balance so that it creates strategic latitude and autonomy while at the same time lessening the involvement of potentially overwhelmed great power politics.

Simply put, Asean shall assume a leading role, or be in the “driver’s seat” in shaping the policy outcomes and maintaining the regional agenda.

Ultimately, it is paramount that Indonesia, and by extension Asean member states, to maintain strategic latitude and autonomy over the region.

It is also perhaps more important for Indonesia, as the nation sets to navigate Asean as it will be the chair of the bloc in 2023.

Nik Luqman Wan Zainoddin is an analyst and freelance writer focused on Southeast Asia. Previously he was attached at the IKMAS UKM-Nippon Foundation as a research fellow. He tweets @Nluqman.

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