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Jakarta Post

When Washington beckons

  • Editorial Board

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, October 31, 2019   /   09:00 am
When Washington beckons President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo (left) and US President Donald Trump share a chuckle before commencing their maiden bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. (JP/Fedina S. Sundaryani)

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo must make it a top priority to appoint a new Indonesian ambassador to the United States or he risks seeing the momentum that the Foreign Ministry has built up dissipate.

Filling the Washington post is important to ensure continuity in the country’s engagements with the US, following Jokowi’s decision last week to give former envoy Mahendra Siregar the new task of coordinating the government’s economic diplomacy efforts.

At the top of that list of efforts, Mahendra must ensure in his first 30 days as deputy foreign minister that Indonesia retains its privileged trade status with the US through the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), which gives it reduced tariffs on billions of dollars’ worth of exports. Having served in Washington for less than six months, the former investment coordinating board chief has been instrumental in negotiating Indonesia’s interests in the GSP review, including by arranging US Trade Secretary Wilbur Ross’ visit to Jakarta next week.

Five out of six Indonesian export products to the US have so far maintained their GSP status, after Jakarta agreed to accommodate a number of US demands, including relaxing data storage rules and tightening supervision on intellectual property rights.

Mahendra has also lined up a plan for President Jokowi to visit Washington next year, which, if successful, will mark a big breakthrough after years of uncertainty in dealing with a US administration that lacks a clear and unified strategy for Southeast Asia’s largest economy.

However, he cannot be expected to do all the heavy lifting and so Jokowi will need to find a permanent replacement in Washington. The new envoy must work swiftly and shrewdly and be able to connect with both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill, even as Republicans and Democrats jostle ahead of decisive 2020 elections. If it comes down to it at all, Indonesia’s next point man or woman in Washington must be able to sweet talk Trump himself.

More importantly, Indonesia needs to catch up with its neighbors when it comes to taking advantage of the ongoing US-China trade war. According to Japanese investment bank Nomura, Indonesia was not a first-choice destination for companies looking to relocate their production facilities when the trade war first erupted in 2018. To add insult to injury, General Motors was the latest firm to exit the country, amid concerns over a cool business climate and policy flip-flops.

The US is already showing more signs of disinterest in Asia, with Trump skipping the ASEAN and East Asia summits in Thailand on the weekend and sending a low-level representative in his stead, while Secretary Ross will be in Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam to negotiate bilaterally.

So who is in the running for Indonesia’s most prestigious diplomatic post? While the Foreign Ministry may be able to propose candidates with the right credentials, they will have to work for the post, as Jokowi has a penchant for auctioning off ambassadorial positions to political allies — Golkar and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), in particular, are in strong contention.

In any case, the President has to make his choice sooner rather than later.