JAKARTA -- Indonesian President Joko Widodo has made a bid to become a leader of the Muslim world on his six-day tour of South Asia, as he sheds his inward-looking foreign policy ahead of elections later this year and next.
"Being the country with the world's largest Muslim population ... is a great political strength in our global relations," he said during a meeting with Indonesian citizens in Islamabad on Friday. He said it was time for Indonesia to pay "special attention" to the Muslim world -- not only in the Middle East but also in South Asia.
Widodo toured Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan over Jan. 24-29 and is in his last stop in Kabul on Monday, where he hopes the local government will see Indonesia as a role model for future development.
The president's new geopolitical ambition is linked to his own political standing at home. The latest polls show that infrastructure programs and bureaucratic reforms have given him a commanding lead over other presidential hopefuls, but local observers say Widodo is still viewed with suspicion among Indonesian Islamists and their sympathizers after a massive smear campaign in 2014 that successfully portrayed him as being part of an anti-Islam conspiracy.
He nearly lost his presidential seat then, and observers say he is aware that his opponents may play the same card again ahead of the 2018 regional elections and the 2019 presidential race. To preempt such moves, Widodo is making a play to become a world-recognized Muslim leader.
During his visits to Pakistan and Bangladesh, Widodo said Muslim leaders must enhance cooperation in tackling problems afflicting the Muslim world -- including terrorism, the refugee crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In his meeting with Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain, Widodo said Indonesia and Pakistan are "long-time friends." He said: "The similar backgrounds can help us work together to encourage cooperation in the Muslim world, to promote moderate Islam and the Islamic people's unity, to help the fight of the Palestinians, to improve the Islamic economy."
This was followed by a visit to a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh on Sunday, when he inspected an Indonesian-run health facility and talked with some refugees. He expressed "great appreciation" to Bangladesh for hosting the Rohingya refugees, and added that Indonesia was committed to continually channeling humanitarian aid while supporting "voluntary, respectful and secure" repatriation of the refugees to Myanmar.
The persecution of the Rohingya population has resulted in almost daily protests by Muslims outside the Burmese embassy in Jakarta in September last year after fresh conflict in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar forced some 650,000 of Rohingya Muslims to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Widodo then dispatched Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi to talk with both Burmese and Bangladeshi officials.
He was also outspoken about U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to name Jerusalem as the new capital of Israel, which prompted fresh Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is seen as threatening the peace process in the Middle East. Widodo was then quick to call Turkish President Recep Erdogan to hold an extraordinary meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference in Istanbul in December.
While the Arab nations, traditionally leaders of the Muslim world, have mostly kept mum over the plight of the Rohingya and the Jerusalem situation, Istanbul and now Jakarta appear increasingly keen to take the lead.
Indeed, Jakarta is already splashing out to support Widodo. Marsudi said in her New Year speech that the ministry will establish Indonesia Aid, a single agency that will channel humanitarian aid to countries in need. The agency will receive 1 trillion rupiah ($70 million) from the government in the early stage of funding to strengthen Jakarta's diplomatic missions, including with "humanitarian diplomacy."
South Asia is strategically important as its location is central to the idea of Indo-Pacific cooperation championed by the U.S., Japan, Australia and India to counter China's expanding presence in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
With the vast Indonesian archipelago snuggled between the two oceans, Widodo sees new opportunities to turn Indonesia into a global maritime fulcrum. He called on South Asian leaders to increase maritime cooperation under the frameworks of the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Indo-Pacific.
But with Indonesia also courting Chinese investment to finance its maritime development, Widodo stressed that the Indo-Pacific talks must remain "open" and "inclusive," implying that China must not be excluded.
Economically, Widodo sought increased presence in the five South Asian nations through enhanced economic partnerships and new trade deals. Creating new export markets and finding new opportunities for Indonesian businesses there were among the top priorities of his tour.
During the trip, Widodo secured a deal for Indonesian state-owned train manufacturer Inka to export 60 train carriages to Sri Lanka, following previous successful deals with Bangladesh to ship 400 train carriages.
Widodo reiterated Indonesia's interest in infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, including the construction of flyovers by an Indonesian state builder. In Bangladesh, the president secured deals for the shipment of liquified natural gas and coal from Indonesia, as well as for the construction of an LNG power plant.
"We have to help each other in improving the welfare of Muslims around the world," Widodo told Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Nikkei staff writer Bobby Nugroho in Jakarta contributed to the story.