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Indonesia seeks stronger ties with Germany

May 5, 2022

Indonesia has been invited by Germany to attend the G7 summit in June, raising hopes of more bilateral cooperation amid a thorny geopolitical landscape.

Joko Widodo speaks at the G20 finance ministers' summit in February
Indonesia currently holds the G20 presidency, and this year's summit is overshadowed by Russia's war in UkraineImage: Hafidz Mubarak A/REUTERS

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has often styled itself on the European Union. In return, the EU has frequently taken a big brother, little brother approach to ASEAN, which hasn't always been received well in the capitals of Southeast Asia.

Given the uniqueness of this bloc-to-bloc partnership, it might be expected that relations between the two heavyweights of each regional association, Germany and Indonesia, would be close. That's not the case, analysts say.

"Considering that Germany and Indonesia are economically strong nations and key actors within the EU and ASEAN, respectively, their bilateral relations are underdeveloped," said Alfred Gerstl, an expert on Indo-Pacific international relations at the University of Vienna.

"Neither the political nor the economic or civil society ties are very close," he told DW.

Although Indonesia represents a third of ASEAN's collective GDP, trade with Germany is relatively small. Bilateral trade was worth €6.6 billion ($7 billion) in 2021, according to German trade data. By comparison, Germany's trade with Vietnam and Malaysia, smaller ASEAN economies, was worth around €13 billion.

Germany as a mediator for Indonesia's G20 summit? 

However, as Germany and Indonesia celebrate the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year, there are hopes for progress.

In a potentially important step this week, Germany said it would invite Indonesia — along with India, South Africa and Senegal —to the G7 summit in the Bavarian Alps in late June.

Germany currently holds the rotating G7 presidency, and Indonesia is president of the G20 this year.

The invitation could spark some life into the partnership that is "not overly ambitious," said Gerstl. "The focus rests on expanding the comparatively low economic exchange and the cooperation in combating climate change."

Indonesia will host the G20 summit in November and controversy is already swirling over whether Indonesian President Joko Widodo will invite his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

Widodo has said he wants both Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president, to attend. But most Western governments have threatened to boycott the summit if Putin attends and have called on Indonesia to withdraw his invitation.

If Widodo disagrees, it could besmirch not only the summit but also Indonesia's tenure as G20 president this year, and Indonesia's image in the eyes of many in the West.

However, Germany has been one of the least belligerent Western states on the Putin G20 invite and, so far, has remained coy on the matter.

"When a member of the G20 wants to destroy another country in this world with bombs, we cannot simply pretend that nothing happened and return to political business as usual," said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock earlier this week.

"But, to exclude Russia from the G20, we need all of the other G19 countries on board," she added.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he hasn't ruled out the possibility of sitting down with Putin if the Russian leader gets invited to the G20 summit in Jakarta. "We will decide on that if the matter arises," he told German media.

Asia expert Gerstl said he believes Germany will need to act as mediator between the other G7 members and Indonesia ahead of the G20 summit, which is perhaps one reason why Indonesia was invited to the G7 gathering in June. 

Widodo, eager to make his country's G20 presidency a success, would be happy to have a figure like Scholz taking the lead. This will necessitate more dialogue than usual between Berlin and Jakarta.

Could Indonesia and Germany cooperate on China policy?

Gerstl believes better relations between Jakarta and Berlin could help improve EU-ASEAN relations. Jakarta is home to the ASEAN apparatus, and the national government has often played a dominant role in setting the regional agenda.

The rise of China also means Indonesian partnerships with European powers like Germany are now more advantageous for both sides having a common interest in countering Beijing's clout.

The EU is embarking on a collective Indo-Pacific policy, and Germany announced its Indo-Pacific strategy paper in 2020.

Indonesia isn't perceived in Berlin as being too closely aligned with either the US or China camp in the Indo-Pacific region.

The prospects for improving German-Indonesian relations are "promising," said Rafal Ulatowski, an assistant professor at the University of Warsaw's Faculty of Political Science and International Studies.

Equally important, there are no serious strategic divergences between the two countries, making them attractive partners for each other, he added.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn