Medan, Indonesia – Indonesia might seem like a natural fit to join an expanded BRICS, the group of emerging economies made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
The Southeast Asian nation of more than 270 million people is a major emerging economy that by some estimates could rank among the world’s top five economies by the middle of the century.
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But when South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa announced the expanded BRICS membership in Johannesburg last week, Indonesia was not on the list, which includes Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Indonesia’s decision to stay out of BRICS despite its similarities with other emerging economies reflects longstanding wariness of being entangled in geopolitical alliances as well as uncertainty about the economic benefits membership would bring, analysts say.
“It is not really surprising, since many analysts and former diplomats had already warned against joining BRICS and the economic benefits are not clear and apparent, while the political and economic cost due to the backlash from the West are quite certain,” Radityo Dharmaputra, a lecturer at the Department of International Relations at Universitas Airlangga, told Al Jazeera.
Ahead of the BRICS summit in South Africa last week, some 40 countries had apparently expressed interest in joining the grouping, including Indonesia.
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said, after attending the gathering in Johannesburg on Thursday, that he was considering membership but did not want to “rush into it”.
Speaking of Indonesia’s membership, Anil Sookal, South Africa’s ambassador to BRICS, said Jakarta had asked for a delay to consult with its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) counterparts about the move.
Universitas Airlangga’s Dharmaputra said that one of Indonesia’s concerns could be the optics of entering into a grouping with countries such as China and Russia.
“The image of Indonesia being seen as part of the China-Russia world would be a problem,” he said.
“Especially since Indonesia really emphasises its independent and active foreign policy. How can you sell that to the other countries, while being in the same group with China and Russia?”
Indonesia was one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War and for decades has held to a “bebas-aktif”, or independent and active, approach to foreign policy, including taking a role in brokering peace around the world, such as when Widodo visited Russia and Ukraine in June last year.
Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer in international relations at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani in Bandung, said there was “no benefit” for Indonesia to join BRICS.
“We have yet to see any real results from BRICS other than as a grouping to counter the United States and there doesn’t seem to be any concrete progress being made,” he told Al Jazeera.
While BRICS has fashioned itself as a bloc to champion the Global South – establishing the New Development Bank (NBD) as an alternative to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank and even floating the possibility of a new currency – perceptions that the grouping is a burgeoning anti-Western alliance could complicate Indonesia’s ties with the United States.
Last week, the Indonesian government and US aircraft maker Boeing agreed to finalise the sale of 24 F-15EX fighter jets to Jakarta following a visit by Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto to Washington, DC.
Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani’s Sulaiman said that it made more sense for Indonesia to be part of groups like ASEAN with its neighbours, instead of arbitrary groupings of countries with which Indonesia has few historical or trade links.
“Indonesia already has ties with China, and Russia is now the subject of an international boycott, so there is no benefit there,” he said. “South Africa is facing a financial crisis and we can also work directly with other countries like India.”
Under Widodo’s presidency, Indonesia has set ambitious development targets, including relocating its capital city to Eastern Borneo and building capacity to process commodities into finished products at home, which is a cornerstone of Jakarta’s efforts to reach $25,000 gross domestic product (GDP) per capita by 2045.
Dharmaputra said that Indonesia has its sights on other global groupings that offer more obvious benefits in areas such as trade, such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which has 38 member countries.
“Indonesia wants to join the OECD and joining BRICS would be seen as an obstacle to this,” he said.
Sulaiman said efforts by BRICS to challenge the dominance of the US dollar would also likely be seen as unattractive to Indonesia.
“This was a highly rational decision,” he said. “Things would be the same whether we joined or not.”