Jokowi, Ukraine, and the G20
By: Bambang Harymurti, Former chief editor of Tempo Magazine
Ukraine has become the battleground for members of the G20. Russia against Europe and the U.S. As the President of a group that controls more than 80% of the world’s economy, as well as for national security, Jokowi has a responsibility to bring peace to a war which has already caused thousands of deaths. It won’t be easy but it isn’t impossible.
It’s no big secret that President Jokowi doesn’t pay much attention to international relations outside Indonesia. The former Mayor of Solo and Governor of Jakarta is now focused on domestic development, specifically on building infrastructure targeted on improving the economy. Building roads, dams and even a new capital city in the jungles of Kalimantan has taken the majority of the president’s time. His motto “Work, work, work” has indeed rung true.
However, this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t pay any attention to international politics at all, especially when related to foreign investments and increasing exports. As someone in the furniture business who started from the bottom and was able to break into the international market, Jokowi understands how important the government’s role is in ensuring that Indonesia gets the most it can out a healthy international trade.
It was his concern for the health of International trade that made Jokowi express his apprehension about possible international conflicts which would disturb world trade and negatively impact all nations, during his attendance at the IMF-World Bank Annual Meetings in Bali in 2018. “Winter is coming”, the president quoted at the time, taking the words from the popular Game of Thrones series.
That winter is now happening in Ukraine.
Every country has been negatively affected by the conflict and these effects, especially the economic ones, have been felt most by those in poverty. Scenes of people lining up for basic goods can be witnessed everywhere as the cost of food and energy has risen, with Indonesia itself having problems with subsidized cooking oil shortages. The IMF has stated that inflation is at its worst since 2011, with food being hit the hardest, and predicts that it will continue to rise further.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has voiced its concern over the increase in food prices, which it says is already worse than during the economic crisis in 2008. This is despite the fact that the food crisis at the time sparked social unrests and uprisings in 40 countries and peaked with the fall of various governments, mostly in the Middle East (Arab Spring) and Africa.
It then makes sense that President Jokowi has been observing the current situation carefully and passing on his observations to those in charge of national security. On March 1st, during a meeting in the National Armed Forces General Headquarters (Markas Besar TNI), Jokowi asked his generals to prepare for problems arising from the price increases. This seems even more important now with the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which has already caused the deaths of thousands and the destruction of multiple cities in the first two weeks. Western nations have taken actions in reponse, including imposing the most severe sanctions in modern history.
This is clearly far worse a situation than at the time of President Jokowi’s “Winter is coming” statement four years ago. At that time, the trade war between the United States and China was the source of most worry. Who would have thought that the next year would bring a global pandemic, and before its end, a war in Europe. The effect of the sanctions that followed have been severe to the world economy as Russia supplies 5 million barrels of oil every day, and together with Ukraine, almost a third of the global wheat to the global trade.
Hence, it's no surprise that oil has skyrocketed past 100 USD per barrel and wheat prices have risen drastically, following other foodstuffs such as soy and cooking oil. This adds to the spectre of the global food crisis as food price increases were already happening before the war in Ukraine. The dramatic increase of natural gas price last year has caused fertilizer prices to shoot up and now they are already 170% higher than last year. Natural gas is the base ingredient of fertilizer and Russia is supplying 40% of European Union import.
These price increases were addressed by the president during his speech at the 46th anniversary of Universitas 11 Maret in Surakarta last Friday. “Now every country is experiencing energy shortages. Now, with the war, prices have increased two-fold,” Jokowi said. In some countries, the president added, the increase in fuel oil is already directly felt by the people.
The truth of President Jokowi's statement can be seen clearly around the world. In the United States, for instance, the price of gasoline has risen to above Rp 20.000 per liter while it is usually below that of non-subsidized gasoline in Indonesia. The Indonesian government is undoubtedly trying to protect its citizens from the gas hikes, which the state budget assumes to be on average USD 63 per barrel. President Jokowi has already asked the Minister of Finance how long the government will be able to defend the current oil price at the pumping stations.
However, as the saying goes, sometimes the best defense is offense. As the president of the G20, Indonesia should go on “diplomatic offense” to stop the war in Ukraine, which has been the main factor in the current energy and food crisis. Fighting for peace in Ukraine is not just a constitutional mandate but also a real and urgent national interest. The question is, of course, how to go about it?
Russia has consistently used threat to its national security as a rationale during post-cold war conflicts with Ukraine. It has considered, officially at least, NATO’s expansion towards the east to be a serious national security threat.
NATO was created in 1949 with the main goal of opposing Russian influence in Europe, at least according to Lord Ismay, the first Secretary General of NATO, who stated that NATO’s creation was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,". Hence, Russia officially claims that Ukraine’s potential entrance into NATO would be a serious security threat.
Conversely, Ukraine, at least lately, has felt its sovereignity to be under threat from a Russian invasion, and, becoming a NATO member would guarantee its protection from any invasion. This is because an attack on a NATO member is considered to be an attack on all 30 member nations, including the United States, who would then be obliged to help.
This war, a conflict between Russia’s security and Ukraine’s sovereignty, is reminiscent of the conflict between Egypt and Israel in 1967. At the time, the Egyptian territory, Sinai, was occupied by its neighbor, Israel. The United States then was able to make peace between the two countries using the concept Land for Peace. Israel gave back the Sinai to Egypt and Egypt agreed to make the territory a military-free area. The United Nations Peacekeeping Forces – including those from Indonesia – have successfully carried out their mission to guarantee compliance of this agreement in Sinai until the present day.
The success of Indonesia’s contribution to world peace has not only been through its UN Peacekeeping Forces. The Indonesian government also successfully initiated peace in Cambodia through informal meetings in Bogor in 1988 which continued as the Jakarta Informal Meeting a year later. This conflict was caused by the Vietnam invasion of Cambodia at the end of 1978, as retaliation for a number of Cambodian attacks on the Vietnam border, which caused approximately 3000 Vietnamese deaths.
The Vietnam invasion was met with criticism from various countries, including the United Nations. Not only western nations reacted; in 1979 China went so far as to attack the Vietnam border in an attempt to force Vietnam to recall its troops from Cambodia, but it failed. Alongside criticism, global economic sanctions were also imposed on Vietnam, causing it to become a pariah state.
Vietnam reacted to this global pressure by creating a local government friendly with Hanoi, under Prime Minister Hun Sen. This puppet state was not recognized by the international community who then gave their support to the Cambodian government in exile and armed resistance groups inside Cambodia. This armed conflict affected the whole of Southeast Asia, and, Indonesia as an ASEAN member, took the initiative to start peace talks, with the help of France, which ended in success through a peaceful agreement in Paris on October 23, 1991, supported by the United Nations.
This success needs to be replicated by President Jokowi. Not only to carry out the constitutional mandate for foreign affairs, but, also for the interests of the national economy. If Indonesia takes the role of interlocutor for Russia, as it did with Vietnam, it can gain a myriad of domestic benefits. For instance, access to Russian wheat, gas and oil, which is now at a discounted 25 USD per barrel as a result of sanctions, translating to savings of Rp 2.500 per liter at the gas station.
The opportunity to take this role is in the hands of President Jokowi, who is now the chair of the G20 which will have its summit in Bali late this year.
President Jokowi may not care much for foreign politics but creating peace in Ukraine is in Indonesia’s national interest as well. That is, to maintain the nation’s ability to create a more prosperous Indonesia.
Note: Find the Indonesian version that is published in Koran Tempo
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