Rendi A. Witular, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
As ethnic Javanese, both President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono adhere to the profound norms of the Javanese culture that emphasize the need to compromise and to avoid getting too directly to the point.
But when it comes to diplomacy, the two men have taken very different approaches.
While Yudhoyono often refused to be straightforward during bilateral meetings, Jokowi is doing the opposite.
Although he still speaks in a soft tone, Jokowi has demonstrated the courage to be direct in his recent conversations with leaders of the world’s powerhouse nations: Chinese President Xi Jinping, US President Barack Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The leaders met on the sidelines of the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing, which ran from Saturday until Tuesday. The event was Jokowi’s first official overseas excursion since taking office on Oct. 20.
In a press conference late on Monday, Jokowi described his brand of diplomacy as blak-blakan (Javanese slang meaning “being direct”).
“I expressed my views in such a straightforward way that several of [the leaders] were apparently taken aback. I wanted to get directly to the point without trying to zigzag,” Jokowi said.
During a meeting with Xi on Sunday, for example, Jokowi directly requested that China bolster economic ties through concrete actions including the involvement of Chinese state companies in the development of Indonesia’s infrastructure.
Jokowi has also demanded a bigger role for Indonesia in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), proposing that the bank open its headquarters in Jakarta.
When he met Obama on Monday, Jokowi demanded that the US lift restrictions on Indonesian palm oil entering the US market.
Jokowi said he had expressed his concerns to several other leaders about the difficulty experienced by certain Indonesian agricultural and fisheries products in entering overseas markets.
“We don’t want to enter into any discussions on free trade deals. We don’t want to open up unless there is something we can gain,” he said.
“Many of our commodities, such as rattan, palm oil and fish, have fallen victim to trade restrictions. These are not commodities produced by big corporations. These are the products of our farmers and small companies,” said Jokowi.
Jokowi also discoursed on Indonesia’s growing importance in the region amid the rivalry between China and the US, as well as territorial disputes involving many of the US’ Asian allies such as Japan and the Philippines.
“Do you know why I sat between President Xi and President Obama [during the APEC leaders’ dinner]? There was symbolism there. You have to understand how to read these symbols,” said Jokowi.
“Indonesia is and will remain in the middle. Our Constitution stipulates that we must perform free and active diplomacy. We’re always willing to play an active role as an honest broker.”
This story originally appeared in The Jakarta Post