Jokowi’s “Infinity Wars” reference at the World Economic Forum on Asean in Hanoi is so interesting, it’s worth breaking down.
The Indonesian president’s reference to the Marvel movies brilliantly put International Political Economics into a language everyone can understand. This is particularly true for his own population, where Infinity Wars was the highest grossing movie in Indonesia’s history.
He referenced the trade “Infinity War”, and the need for the Asean “Avengers” to unite against the global “Thanos”.
But how should we read these allegories, not least when Indonesia’s rupiah is going through its own thriller of blockbuster proportions?
Who Is “Thanos?”
“Thanos is not any individual person, sorry to disappoint you.”
Everyone in the room – and out – knows who the Thanos reference is really aimed at. The Donald, and his escalation of a potential Trade War.
Infinity War = Trade War
“We are heading towards Infinity War… Not since the Great Depression of the 1930s have trade wars erupted with the intensity that they have today.”
The Trump inspired Trade War is mainly directed at China. But equally affected are those South East Asian countries with a lot of Chinese investment.
Indonesia is not high on the list of countries to be affected by a Trade War. But we’ve got other problems.
Indonesian Rupiah Crisis
According to Bloomberg:
“The rupiah is among the world’s worst-performing currencies in 2018… even though the country seems to be doing the right things.”
The value of a currency largely depends on its ability to attract long-term foreign investment.
One reason it doesn’t is it’s “Logistics Performance” – that rigid commitment of Indonesian culture to want to make business as difficult as possible to conduct.
But could classic Indonesian management actually help in a Trade War scenario?
Chinese Capital has effectively taken over most other South East Asian countries.
“From Malaysia to Pakistan, governments along China’s belt and road are now asking if they’re getting a fair deal.” (Bloomberg)
As for Indonesia? Only the $5.96 Billion investment in the Jakarta to Bandung road can be considered part of the belt and road project.
And with little to show for since 2015, Beijing is not used to such sluggishness.
So the direct knock-on effects of a Trade War would be minimal on the archipelago, thanks to a very Indonesian way of doing business.
“The ASEAN Avengers”
Unlike the disintegrating EU, polarized North America, and most other Blocs, Asia seems to have each other’s backs.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – which is effectively ASEAN plus 6 of the other big Eastern Hemisphere players – are arguably the most unified economic bloc in the world right now.
If any group can survive a “Thanos” onslaught, it’s could be them.
Indonesia – The New Non-Aligned Movement Leader?
Indonesia’s first president lead the Non-Aligned Movement of the 1950’s, creating an alternative space in the Cold War for emerging economies.
Despite the pop culture references, Jokowi’s words wouldn’t be out of place at the 1958 Bandung Conference.
“Thanos is the misguided belief that in order for us to succeed, others must surrender. He is the misperception that the rise of some necessarily means the decline of others.”
Sure, the Rupiah position isn’t ideal. But the alternative, total control from Chinese Capital doesn’t seem like the solution on the cusp of a Trade War either.
Perhaps Indonesia’s greatest asset, as the world’s largest Muslim-majority Democracy in the world, is offering a Modern Third Way?
This would be completely in the independent spirit of the nation’s inception.
How Are The Odds?
Jokowi said, to laughter and applause of the delegates:
“But rest assured, myself and my fellow Avengers stand ready to prevent Thanos from wiping out half the world’s population.”
At the end of the Infinity Wars movie, the Avenger’s chances of success were 1 in 14 million.
The odds of success may be similarly skewed against the Asean Avengers.
But a slither of hope is all real Heros need, right?