Against a backdrop of continuing violence and instability, the United States must be prepared to take a stronger stand on Papua. Rising tensions there risk complicating critically significant U.S.-Indonesia relations, unnecessarily distracting from the strategically important “rebalancing” towards the Asia-Pacific recently announced by the Obama administration.
By any measure, Indonesia looms large in U.S. foreign policy. Its status as a “Comprehensive Partner” speaks to the country’s political, economic and strategic significance. Moreover, as an influential player in multilateral forums both regionally and internationally, a strong relationship with Indonesia is invaluable in wider U.S. efforts at engagement in the Asia-Pacific – spanning diplomatic, trade and economic matters, through to security concerns such as extremism and maritime issues. In the context of the recent strategic rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific, this significance will only increase in coming years, as the United States seeks to leverage existing relationships with Asian allies and partners. Keeping a healthy bilateral relationship on track will be one crucial element – among many – assisting this delicate maneuver.
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While certainly positive at the moment, the U.S.-Indonesia relationship is by no means immune from setbacks. In this respect, it may be instructive to recall the warming of ties between the two nations post-Suharto. Much was built and anticipated on the back of this, only to be derailed by a serious miscalculation by Jakarta in Timor-Leste. Recovery from this took some time and effort, and even now in Jakarta, incredulity and resentment continue to be harbored in some quarters at how the U.S. so readily jeopardized an important bilateral relationship for the sake of some insignificant (for Jakarta), far-flung province. Yet, that was so. And to the extent the values underpinning that response continue to endure – on Capitol Hill and among the American public – a response of the same measure will likely be forthcoming again should circumstances warrant.
If that’s the case, may we currently be seeing history repeating itself in Papua? Recent developments portend a disturbing likelihood. Jakarta’s alleged deafness to Papuan concerns, escalating protests, frequent tit-for-tat shootings by shadowy figures, and heavy-handed responses from Indonesian security forces and officials, have all contributed to a state of semi-chaos and inflamed tensions. In such a confused environment, a small incident may quickly spiral out of control, drawing the kind of vicious crackdown security forces in Papua have become notorious for. Graphic images – beamed worldwide – of security forces indiscriminately shooting into crowds of unarmed civilians may be too difficult to countenance in the U.S., irrespective of the status or significance of bilateral relations. The resulting backlash against Indonesia would invariably damage the bilateral relationship, and even if only temporarily, potentially compromise its usefulness to broader U.S. strategic goals.
Nor should the likely regional and sub-regional repercussions be ignored by U.S. policymakers. Take the Pacific neighborhood as a case in point. Lately, Indonesia has been actively cultivating relations with the Melanesian nations Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji. According to some, though likely motivated by honorable intentions, such moves may also be attempts to undermine the strength of the Melanesian bonds between these nations and the separatist National Coalition for the Liberation of West Papua (formerly, the Organisasi Papua Merdeka or OPM).
On the basis of a shared ethnicity, culture, and kinship, these nations have historically expressed strong solidarity with the Papuan struggle, affording varying levels of recognition to the separatist movement. Indonesian entreaties in recent years, however, have steadily eroded this. In April 2011, the Melanesian Spearhead Group – the regional association of the nations mentioned – voted to extend observer status to Indonesia, ignoring the appeals of Papuans for similar recognition made ever since the inception of the body. At a bilateral level, Vanuatu – once a staunch supporter of the separatist cause – signed a Development Cooperation Agreement with Indonesia in December 2011 with clauses explicitly recognizing the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Indonesia and the principle of non-interference in Indonesian affairs.
It’s uncertain how these Melanesian nations will react to a worsening Papuan situation, bearing in mind surveys of popular opinion still show much sympathy for the Papuan cause. In Vanuatu, the opposition has already tapped into this vein of potential political support, promising a repudiation of the Agreement signed in December should it return to office. May an escalation in tensions in Papua prove to be a catalyst for more political instability in Melanesia and elsewhere in the Pacific? And what of the implications for Pacific regionalism, now characterized by some observers to be in a parlous state? In a geographical neighborhood already with more than its fair share of governance, developmental and security challenges, additional complications of this nature won’t be welcome by many. Nor should it be by the United States, consumed as it is, attempting a critical strategic shift.
Make no mistake: in the broader overall rebalancing, Asian friends like Indonesia will be critically significant. What they will bring to bear assisting the U.S. will be all the greater provided they may speak with credibility, legitimacy, and a moral authority. For Indonesia, the satisfactory resolution of the Papua issue will burnish its credentials significantly in this regard. The U.S. should do far more to encourage such an outcome.
Alfred Oehlers is a professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of APCSS, the U.S. Pacific Command, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.