Indonesian President Joko Widodo is recasting himself as a global peacemaker ahead of the G20 summit in Bali in November this year, where growing tensions between the West and Russia are expected to spill over. In his first interview since his visit to Russia and Ukraine, where he spoke to both leaders and forged an agreement on wheat exports, ‘Bapak’ Jokowi told The Hindu it is time for leaders in the conflict to put their “egos” aside to save the world from disruptions in food and oil supply chains.
You're the first Asian leader to travel to both Kyiv and Moscow — how successful do you think your peace mission was?
My motivation to visit Ukraine and Russia was only one and that is humanity. We need to ensure that we don’t let countries have their civilians starve and fall into extreme poverty because of the problems of the food crisis and the fertilizer crisis — innocent civilians should not become the casualties of war. I wish to appeal to the conscience of the leaders to stop the war immediately. Ukraine and Russia are bread baskets of the world and during my talks, President Zelensky told me they have 20 million tonnes of stocks of grain and new crops of 55 million tonnes in Ukraine. In Russia, President Putin said they have 130 million tonnes. So 270 million tonnes are wheat stocks that the two countries are not being able to be export, which is going to be very dangerous for the world. Even if these commodities could be taken out securely, shipping lines are hesitant to ship out of their ports because of the danger, and high insurance premiums. Since then, I see there are direct talks in Turkey, and I hope this food export issue can be resolved between Ukraine and Russia.
There are serious concerns about the G20 summit in November given walk-outs by both sides at the IMF meeting and Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Bali. How worried are you?
If you look at the meeting of the Foreign Ministers in Bali, the result was productive, in the sense that at least all countries attended and could sit together in one room. The walk-outs that you speak of are, of course, one of the dynamics of the situation [since the Russia-Ukraine conflict]. The space for dialogue that we are providing at the G20 must be utilised. Most importantly, we have to reduce the egoism of leaders for the betterment of the people of the world.
India will take over the Presidency next. As the host President, what is the message you hope goes out from this G20 to the next G20?
The agenda that we wish to discuss at the G20 would focus on the post-Covid global health architecture, on green economy energy transitions, and digital transformation. These are our priorities, but we know that the war will shift the agenda. We need to see how we can all stop the war, address the issue of food security, energy security, the financial situation, to see how global crises can be resolved. Remember, the G20 is the forum — the only forum that is relevant to address these issues — there are no other forums.
Will both President Putin and President Zelensky attend the G20?
President Putin said he will attend, while for President Zelensky, due to the situation in Ukraine, there is still some uncertainty about his attendance.
Like Indonesia, India has taken a stand where it does not condone Russia's actions, but neither has it joined Western sanctions. Is there also a place at the G20 for countries that are non-aligned in this conflict?
The first thing is that we must sit together regardless of whether you belong to one or other blocs, on either side of the spectrum, as well as those who want to sit on the fence. Most importantly, we need to reduce our egoism, promote humanity, give issues like food security and energy security priority.
The Indian and Chinese armies have been in a standoff at the Line of Actual Control for more than two years. Do you hope to see Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping meet in Bali?
You have to look at the space for dialogue that is created. If there is a meeting between two major powers like India and China. Indonesia stands ready to mediate — we are always ready to help with anything that will ensure the betterment of people’s lives.
You also met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month in Germany, and he wrote to wish you for Eid. How much are you both coordinating ahead of the G20?
We discussed a lot of issues on the economy and investment as well as broadly on Indonesia-India bilateral relations when we met. We also discussed Indian imports of cooking oil, and I told him that we lifted the restriction in May so the distribution of palm oil across the globe has now been restored.
Last month, your government protested with the Indian government over comments that were made about the Prophet and there were protests in Indonesia too. Did you discuss this?
In Indonesia, protests and demonstrations are an expression of our democracy and we never restrict them, we provide space for differences as long as it stays within the law. I wouldn’t want to speak about [India].
Both countries are seeing religious radicalisation, majoritarian movements and violence. How can you manage the challenge of staying a republic amidst this radicalisation and extremism?
I think there are no fundamental problems among different religions. In my Cabinet and in my government, we have a diverse group, we have members of the Catholic faith, Hindus, Muslims, and so on. These are the relations I wish to project to the people to show by example that, of course, there are problems, but we must be able to settle them by sitting together.
Both you and Prime Minister Modi came to power in 2014. You had both been leaders in your own areas — you were Mayor of Solo, he was Chief Minister of Gujarat before leading the country. Are there other similarities, also in your leadership style?
I think we do share some similarities because of our past track records.
In 2024, you will reach your term limit of 10 years as President, and you have said that you don’t intend to seek another term, or change the Indonesian Constitution to stay on. Have you thought about what your role will be?
I will go back to my city of Solo and think about what my role can be in terms of helping protect the environment.
Four years after PM Modi and you exchanged visits, plans for India to join the Malacca Straits Patrol and to invest in the western Sabang port have not moved forward...
We welcome India's [plan for] investment in Sabang port, which will give added value to the connectivity between Aceh and the Andaman Islands in India. It is really important we are able to increase trade and tourism and these projects can be realised quickly fairly quickly, so Sabang can become one of the one of the biggest maritime ports as it was before.
Would you consider joining an expanded Quad with the U.S., India, Australia and Japan, a group China has called an Asian NATO?
Cooperation on the Indo-Pacific must be increased between ASEAN and India. We have to ensure that initiatives don’t lead to unhealthy competition among the countries. We have to manage this [U.S.-China] rivalry and ensure that it is not escalated to an open conflict. Indonesia has a “free and active” foreign policy and its goal is to be friends with all countries. The U.S. is Indonesia's strategic partner, and China is also a major strategic partner.
In the Indian subcontinent, we are seeing many protests over economic distress. Sri Lanka is the latest example where the leadership has had to leave because of the people's protests their unhappiness about economics. How much do you worry about that kind of scenario here?
People have concerns with the current situation because of hyper inflation in food prices and energy prices, and nobody likes this, and that is why we have to resolve this in Indonesia ourselves. For example, we have stopped needing to import rice any more, from three years ago when we imported about 1.5 to 2 million tonnes a year. This is because we have constructed 60 dams for irrigation and are developing new types [of crops] that give a higher yield. In contrast, we’re still importing wheat, soy, sugar because we can’t produce it here, and this is a key problem.
You spoke about the importance of global food security. But here in Indonesia, you banned the export of palm oil. Mr. Modi also banned wheat exports from India. Isn’t this a contradiction?
I can’t speak for India but I think for Indonesia's case, the ban was only temporary, in order to address the shortages. It would be an irony if as the largest palm oil exporter in the world, Indonesia, itself doesn’t have palm oil for its own people. It was only a temporary measure for one month in order to stabilise the domestic stocks, and then we reopened. We are an open country but I think we need to regulate trade.
Apart from export bans on palm oil, you have also said you will ban the export of raw materials, minerals and metal ore. Is Indonesia turning protectionist?
We will definitely stop the exports of nickel, tin, copper and bauxite. This is in order to create the downstream industry in Indonesia, so that we can add value in Indonesia, create jobs in Indonesia. We will earn revenue from export, and also from taxes. Previously we exported all our raw materials, and the proceeds were only from the sale, not in terms of jobs and employment.