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Jakarta Post

Of men and mouse deer

  • Editorial Board

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, February 21, 2020   /   08:09 am
Of men and mouse deer US President Donald Trump (via AFP/Drew Angerer/Getty Images/)

Some five years after his last visit to the United States, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo finally looks set to visit Washington, DC, next month for an audience with US President Donald Trump, a diplomatic goal that has so far eluded Southeast Asia’s largest nation.

Armed with proposals to overhaul whole swathes of legal red tape that have so far prevented the country from maximizing its investment potential, Jokowi will need all the help he can get to gain the good graces of a superpower that has grown increasingly self-serving in the geopolitical landscape and more defiant of the multilateral trade system.

While signs of incoming US private funding have been encouraging, the government will need to really check its privileges when the two presidents finally meet.

Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investments Minister Luhut Pandjaitan has played a central role in persuading the US International Development Finance Organization to invest in Indonesia, which will undoubtedly help with the country’s image abroad.

But how much does Indonesia stand to gain from this visit?

Economically, Indonesia is still on Washington’s top-20 list of countries with “unfair” trade practices, code for a significant trade surplus that Trump seeks to rectify, as the US looks to compete with China’s massive Belt and Road infrastructure push.

And by representing tech giants like Google and Facebook, as well as other big-name firms like General Electric, Boeing and Chevron, there is a lot of incentive to hand on a silver platter.

Politically, the US wields much more power than Indonesia on the world stage and this has restricted Jakarta’s diplomacy in the Middle East conflict, among other issues.

But when political favors are asked in return for a trade or investment deal, Jokowi should know where to draw the line.

His affinity for folk stories might prove useful in this scenario.

For a middle-power country like Indonesia not to be trampled by two fighting giants like the US and China, it needs to operate in a way that is both agile and clever.

Indonesia should emulate the sly movements of the mouse deer, which manages to outwit a boar in the tale of The Mouse Deer and The Arrogant Wild Boar.

In some versions of the fable, the tiny mouse deer challenges the bigger sharp-tusked boar to a fight over its place in the jungle. If the mouse deer loses, the boar can proceed to eat its flesh and continue its claim to be the king of the jungle. But if it loses, the boar must leave the jungle forever.

The allegories that might arise from this tale may be suspect, but in the end it is the ever-resourceful mousedeer that comes out of the fight unscathed, aided by an almost invisible mask that it had prepared before the challenge was announced.

To wit, Jokowi must be fully prepared when he makes the journey to Washington to meet with Trump, or risk being outwitted by a partner that — while he may not be a model Samaritan — still wields the most geopolitical power in this uncertain world.