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TRANSLATION: Risks and Benefits if Indonesia Aligns With BRICS

After expressing initial interest to join the BRICS group, Indonesian President Joko Widodo later withdrew Jakarta's application. ADEK BERRY / POOL / AFP

The following is a summary translation of an article published in Bahasa on the Indonesian news website, written by reporter Andrian Pratama Taher, that combines several Indonesian analysts’ perspectives on the potential benefits and risks of Indonesia joining BRICS. 

The article was written in the run-up to the summit and has been lightly edited and updated with the summit’s latest developments. 

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo last week’s BRICS attendance under the invitation of South Africa attracted the public’s attention amid reports of the group’s desire to expand its membership. More than 40 countries, including Iran, Egypt, Ethiopia, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates who were later invited, had expressed interest to join.

Each of the BRICS countries had their own agenda. China was looking for ways to widen its influence amid tension with the United States, while Russia was seeking support to overcome diplomatic exclusion over the Ukraine war. The summit was also looking at strengthening economic ties, as well as the potential to increase local currency loans from the BRICS Bank’s New Development Bank (NDB).

Airlangga University international relations lecturer Radityo Dharmaputra believed that BRICS’ invitation to Indonesia could not be detached from the effort to expand the bloc’s influence to middle powers, including Indonesia. On the other hand, Radityo admitted that Indonesia was viewed to have influence after successfully organizing the G20. 

For Radityo, attending the BRICS would improve Indonesia’s position in the international community. However, he was worried about the narrative that would come from Jokowi’s arrival at the BRICS, given the fact that Jokowi rarely attends international activities, including the annual United Nations assembly. 

Indonesian President Joko Widodo arriving in South Africa to attend the BRICS leaders summit on August 24, 2023. Image via Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Jokowi’s absence from international meetings is understandable. However, in Radityo’s eyes, BRICS is not just another economic forum but a movement to balance the powers of the United States and Western groups. 

“Indonesia must be careful not to get caught in the grip of China and Russia in BRICS and lose other partners. The economic benefits of BRICS (which are still uncertain) should not be paid for politically,” Radityo told Tirto on Monday last week. 

Radityo said that Jokowi must be able to represent Indonesia both at the G7 and at BRICS if the president wants to maintain the non-aligned movement. Jokowi’s presence in the G7 and his attendance at BRICS then can be seen as the spirit of non-alignment. 

Radityo, however, suggested that the term “non-bloc” be changed to “multi-alignment”, as conveyed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is because “non-bloc” could be interpreted as not being present in the various existing blocks, while “multi-alignment” indicates that Indonesia can be in any group. 

Radityo said that in representing Indonesia, Jokowi’s attendance at BRICS was relevant. But, he warned Jokowi not to bring Indonesia to join BRICS immediately. 

“For joining, let’s wait first. The “Free and Active” policy requires Indonesia to prioritize its national interests. Not necessarily neutral, but not controlled by anyone in order to achieve [certain] interests. What are Indonesia’s interests, according to the government? This must be fleshed out,” Radityo said. 

For example, he said, Jokowi must calculate what can be obtained from BRICS rather than from the West when comes the time for Indonesia to decide to join BRICS. He believed that the current situation with Russia isn’t helpful [for Indonesia], since there is no money due to war sanctions. South Africa may not be rich enough. China is able to give investment, but Indonesia already has bilateral relations with the country. 

In terms of currency, Radityo assessed that Indonesia has enough bilateral cooperation with other countries. He said the BRICS currency is very unlikely to materialize because of the friction between China and India. 

“The risk is too great to join the BRICS-style geopolitical club. If Indonesia wants to remain ‘free,’ it should instead encourage MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, Australia), of which Indonesia is the chair this year,” Radityo added. 

Therefore, Radityo suggested Indonesia not to join BRICS. He encouraged Indonesia to take advantage of both sides. 

“The geopolitical consequences are too large if Indonesia gets too close to BRICS because it risks being at odds with the US, EU, and Japan. Why take the risk when Indonesia should take advantage of both sides.”

Radityo Dharmaputra, international relations lecturer at Airlangga University

Meanwhile, law and international relations expert from the University of Indonesia Hikmahanto Juwono said that Jokowi’s engagement with BRICS proved his commitment to the “Free and Active” policy. Indonesia under Jokowi’s leadership continues to look for all cooperation options other than with the G7, Hikmahanto said. 

“This actually emphasizes the “Free and Active” policy that is devoted to the national interest. Indonesia wants to see the various opportunities that exist where China and Russia are in it. Indonesia has already met with the G7. So it is good to see various potentials for cooperation,” said Hikmahanto.

Nevertheless, like Radityo, Hikmahanto encouraged Indonesia not to immediately join BRICS. He echoed that Indonesia needs to carefully calculate the advantages and disadvantages before docking, especially since the geopolitical situation is currently polarized.

In Hikmahanto’s view, Jokowi will not break any rules if Indonesia enters BRICS as long as it does not violate national interests. However, he emphasized that the West — the US and its allies — will perceive Indonesia as pro-BRICS. 

“Yes, of course, the US et al who are members of the G7 will perceive Indonesia as shifting to BRICS. Whereas Indonesia only carries out free and active politics,” said Hikmahanto.

Better to Strengthen ASEAN Than Join BRICS 

Communication and international relations expert from Jember University, Mohammad Iqbal, believed that Indonesia needs to be careful in playing the game of BRICS diplomacy and narratives. This is because BRICS can bring positive and negative impressions on Indonesia’s economic geopolitical diplomacy in the world. 

On the positive side, the strength of Indonesia’s natural resources gives the country a significant bargaining position in various key aspects. He believed that Indonesia’s future development increasingly requires the availability of natural resources. These resources are significant for the world, both for BRICS and for G7 and G20 countries. 

“The downside is that the Western powers, especially the United States and Europe, may play a politics that is increasingly assertive, or even tough, on Indonesia’s foreign policy,” said Iqbal. 

Iqbal reminded that the Russian and Ukrainian war crises, the South China Sea conflict, and the aftermath of the U.S.-China trade war would make the U.S. and Europe insecure about various U.S. and European partnership schemes in Indonesia. He is worried that there will be derivative problems. 

“The European-Indonesian palm oil trade crisis has not yet been resolved. The current U.S. minor spotlight on Indonesia’s mining and mineral and coal political policies which tend to be ‘Beijing Heavy’ certainly has the potential for higher escalation,” Iqbal said. 

Iqbal added, “On the one hand, Indonesia’s presence at the BRICS Summit is a form of trust from the wing of a potential superpower block. On the other hand, it can result in distrust from the group of seven countries.” 

Iqbal said that both the G7 and BRICS understand Indonesia’s potential. The two blocs also understand that Indonesia will prioritize the non-aligned movement without reducing its free and active role in world peace. Like his counterparts, Iqbal believed that Jokowi would damage that constellation of peace if Indonesia moved closer to BRICS. 

“President Jokowi and all All The President’s Men, once again must be calculating and careful in this BRICS narrative game. The fate of the nation’s future is at stake. Wrong steps can be dispersed because it can wake up an angry lion,” said Iqbal. 

Iqbal assessed that the House of Representatives needs to participate in controlling Jokowi’s attitude towards BRICS. The House needs to hold hearings with cabinet partners to calculate in terms of rational and constitutional considerations if Jokowi approaches BRICS. 

Iqbal suggested Indonesia should focus on strengthening ASEAN instead of moving closer to BRICS. He argued that the Indo-Pacific is far more ‘promising’ for the future of the world. 

“I think rather than being a ‘follower in BRICS,’ it is much more strategic for Indonesia to re-strengthen ASEAN’s bargaining position for the world political economy. Even the entire potential of Indonesia’s independence in the Indo-Pacific corridor should be far more promising for a bright portrait of the world’s political economy outlook going forward,” Iqbal said.

The original version of this story was published in Bahasa on the Indonesian news website and was republished with permission.

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