For Indonesia, sports diplomacy is a double-edged sword

Three months ago, I Wayan Koster, the governor of Hindu-majority Bali, made his mark on the international stage by banning an Israeli squad from participating in this year’s FIFA Under-20 World Cup.

Operating at the intersection of domestic Indonesian politics, his country’s foreign relations and the fuzzy lines allegedly separating sports and politics, Mr. Koster is weighing a repeat performance with a double whammy.

However, this time around, the stakes for Indonesia and Mr. Koster may be higher.

If Mr. Koster opposes Israeli participation again, Indonesia could be deprived not only of the hosting of the Association of National Olympic Committees’ (ANOC) World Beach Games, the world’s most significant water and beach sports event, but also of its general assembly scheduled to open on August 13, a day after the tournament.

Worse, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) could sanction Indonesia by banning it from the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games.

In 1964, the IOC barred Indonesia from participating in the Tokyo Summer Olympics after the Southeast Asian nation refused to let Israel and Taiwan compete in the 1962 Asian Games.

Under international sporting rules, hosts must guarantee access to qualifying athletes and teams irrespective of whether countries have diplomatic relations. Indonesia refuses to recognise Israel as long as the Jewish state fails to solve its long-standing dispute with the Palestinians.

So far, Mr. Koster and the Indonesian government, eager to avoid suffering additional reputational damage after FIFA stripped Indonesia of hosting rights earlier this year and moved U-20 World Cup to Argentina, appear to be hedging their bets.

As governor of a tourism-dependent island famed for its tolerance and hospitality that was hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, putting Bali at the center of international controversy would seem not to be in Mr. Koster’s interest.

In addition, the refusal, backed by Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, to host an Israeli World Cup team produced mixed results.

Mr. Koster reportedly banned the Israeli soccer team at the behest of Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president and head of President Joko Widodo’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).

The ban was intended to bolster support for Mr. Pranowo, the PDP-I’s candidate in next year’s presidential election. Mr. Widodo is constitutionally barred from running for a third term.

The move proved problematic because it juxtaposed two deep-seated Indonesian passions: support for the Palestinian cause and a love of soccer. Passion for soccer may be less of a consideration with the Beach Games, even though football is one of the tournament’s 14 disciplines.

“Instead of gaining an electoral boost by echoing anti-Israel Islamic elements, Koster and Pranowo’s public rejection of the Israeli youth soccer team has become a boomerang. These two men are attracting negative attention, not least from a large number of Indonesian football fans,” noted political scientist Burhanuddin Muhtadi as Indonesia lost its World Cup hosting rights.

Mr. Koster and Indonesian sports minister Dito Ariotedjo appear to be betting that Israel will not qualify for any of the Beach Games’ disciplines. That could be a risky bet, with the last qualifying events only ending next month.

Seemingly prematurely, the two men base their bet on confusion over an ANOC list of 69 countries. Mr. Koster believes the list, which does not include Israel represents countries qualified to participate in the Beach Games. ANOC says the document lists countries taking part in a seminar.

“I had an agreement when I received the visit of the youth and sports minister and the chairman of the Indonesian Olympic Committee, Mr. Raja (Sapta Oktohari), that the World Beach Games in Bali could be held without Israeli participants,” Mr. Koster said last month.

Mr. Koster’s track record with the World Cup, coupled with the confusion, has ensured that, unlike the FIFA tournament, the Beach Games have not sparked anti-Israeli protests.

The Israel Olympic Committee insists that “Israeli athletes will participate in the ANOC only if they are given equal conditions to those of other countries.”

The Committee said the International Olympic Committee “is in continuous contact with us on the matter, and we are confident that they will uphold the equality and right of the State of Israel to compete.”

So far, Israel’s men’s basketball 3×3 team and Israeli women swimmers are believed to have qualified for the Bali Beach Games.

Losing the Beach Games, just months after the World Cup loss, would cast a further shadow over Indonesia’s efforts to play a more prominent international role.

The Southeast Asian nation last year earned kudos for chairing the Group of 20 (G20), which brings together the world’s largest economies.

This year, as chair of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Indonesia has been managing evolving differences in the group on how to approach the Myanmar junta.

Thailand broke ranks with ASEAN by hosting the junta’s foreign minister on Sunday for informal peace talks. Myanmar has been roiled by violence since a 2021 coup, with the military battling to crush an armed pro-democracy resistance movement on multiple fronts.

ASEAN has barred Myanmar from attending senior-level meetings for failing to honour an agreement to start talks with its opponents.

On another front, Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, like PDP-I’s Mr. Pranowo, a candidate in next year’s presidential election, proposed a peace plan to end the Ukraine war earlier this month. The plan called for a demilitarised zone and a United Nations referendum in what he termed disputed territory.

As G20 chair, Mr. Widodo travelled to Moscow and Kyiv last year to offer his services to mediate peace talks between the warring parties.

Controversy over the Beach Games puts Mr. Widodo in a bind.

“Israeli participation in the Beach Games puts Widodo between a rock and a hard place. What is good for Indonesia may not be what his party thinks is good for its electoral prospects,” said an Indonesian analyst.

Dr. James M. Dorsey
Dr. James M. Dorsey
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.