Summits Are a Hassle but Can We Live Without Them?

The great sucking sound that people in Jakarta heard last week was no cause for alarm. It was just the diplomatic community heaving a collective sigh of relief on receiving news that President Joko Widodo decided to attend the G-20 summit in Brisbane, Australia after all.

So this week, the president spends time attending three summits: first, the Apec Economic Leaders’ Meeting (AELM) in Beijing; then the 25th Asean Summit and related summits in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar; and finally that G-20 summit in Brisbane.

The word is that the president hesitated about going to the G-20 summit because he doubted if he could bring home anything concrete from the meeting that would redound to the benefit of the Indonesian people.

But all’s well that ends well: he changed his mind and decided to go. That’s great not only for Indonesia but also for the rest of the world. As former Indonesia Investment Coordinating Board Chairman Mahendra Siregar explained in a seminar of the Foreign Policy Community in Jakarta last week, the G-20 needs Indonesia as badly as Indonesia needs the grouping.

I’ve had the privilege of closely observing the first four summits of the G-20 and I am convinced that there’s no voice in that forum as strong and limpid as Indonesia’s in advocating uninterrupted financial flows for development. Nor is there a voice more passionate than Indonesia’s in calling for reform of the international financial architecture.

During those early summits the G-20 brought forth a massive stimulus of $1.1 trillion, decided to reform IMF quotas and corresponding voting rights, delivered the world from the plague of protectionism, took action against tax havens and set up the Financial Stability Board.

In each of these collective efforts, Indonesia was there punching for the twin causes of reform and development. It was Indonesia that sought and got a place for Asean at the G-20 table.

Observers say the G-20 is no longer as potent as it used to be. That well may be. But it can have a second wind. The G-20 finance ministers and central bank governors have been putting together a set of measures that would plug the tax loopholes that many multinationals are now enjoying with impunity. That just might work.

Every G-20 member is bringing to Brisbane concrete action plans for boosting economic growth. The idea is to achieve two percent increase in the global GDP that will translate into “tens of millions of jobs.” That’s always worth a try.

Meanwhile, at the level of the Indo-Pacific region, Apec is launching initiatives to cut red tape on business licensing and on the movement of goods across borders, to close the Internet development gap, to fight corruption, to promote the trade on clean energy. And, yes, also to foster maritime cooperation. Those are the very things that Indonesia wants.

As to the Asean and Asean-related summits in the middle of this week, we know that the fiercest cavil against Asean comes from circles in Asean countries. There are also valid criticisms. But as the Philippine ambassador to Asean, Elizabeth Buensuceso, once quipped, “Try living without Asean!”

Myanmar once thumbed its nose at Asean democratic values. Since then it has learned that such smugness isn’t profitable. It’s now doing a fine job as Asean chair.

In the Asean summits this week, Indonesia can push for greater economic integration, a more robust maritime cooperation and more zip in the snail-paced consultations toward a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea—to name a few of its neighborhood concerns. Without Indonesia pushing for these concerns, Asean, infuriatingly, won’t move any faster.

That’s what summits are for. They’re expensive. Inconvenient. But without them, in this interdependent world, nothing much will move.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

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