ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Can the Pacific Become a Priority for Indonesian Diplomacy?

Indonesia will continue to prioritize the Indo-Pacific construct with an accent on the Indian Ocean, at the expense of the Pacific.

Can the Pacific Become a Priority for Indonesian Diplomacy?
Credit: Flickr/blueforce4116

The Pacific region has been rising on the Indonesian diplomatic horizon for twenty years, yet it has rarely been a priority. Like other previous official comments, the  statement issued by the Indonesian foreign minister on January 6 shows that the Pacific island countries will still be largely overlooked by Jakarta. In her speech, Retno Marsudi mentioned the Pacific only once as a region and thrice as part of larger cooperation-related concepts, namely the Indo-Pacific, Pacific Elevation and Pacific Exposition. The speech omitted two important Pacific regional organizations of which Indonesia is part, the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) and Pacific Island Forum (PIF). A core of Indonesian regional aspiration continues at the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) which received twenty-six mentions and, surprisingly, the European Union, which received six times more mentions than the Pacific region, despite the latter’s close proximity to Indonesia.

The press statement is inconsistent with what Indonesian diplomats and ambassadors in the Pacific have long been preaching: that Indonesia is “the biggest Pacific race and country.” Although Indonesia’s government has intensified its efforts and profile to become a “big brother” in the region, why does the nation still lack a comprehensive, nuanced, structured policy focusing on this seemingly abandoned region?

First, while the Pacific is arguably relevant to Indonesia’s diplomacy, the West Papua issue has stood in the way of the development of a cohesive Pacific diplomatic approach. West Papuans’ concerns about what they view as Indonesia’s occupation of the territory, and the continued armed conflicts, violence, and unrest in the area, are shared by many of their Pacific brothers and sisters, not only state leaders and politicians, but also including civil society groups across the region.

So far, Indonesia has relied heavily on economic grants and technical cooperation to boost its presence in the Pacific and contain the West Papua issue. From 2014 to 2020, Indonesia’s aid to the region totalled around $16 million, in the forms of humanitarian and capacity building programs and development cooperation in Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tuvalu, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and Samoa. In September 2019, Indonesia launched the $212 million Indonesian Aid program, geared at Asia and the Pacific. Yet Indonesian aid is a drop in the ocean compared to major donors including Australia, New Zealand, China, the U.S., Japan, and the European Union, which together contribute much of the approximately $2 billion the region receives annually.

Despite Indonesia’ growing financial aid to the region, the West Papua issue has gained even stronger support in the Pacific because Jakarta has never resolved the source of the political and human rights problems. Some Pacific countries have relentlessly raised the West Papua human rights issues at regional and global forums, such as the MSG, the PIF, and the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). In 2015, the MSG awarded observer status to the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, an organization that coordinates the various West Papuan independence campaigns across the globe.

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At the 71st UNGA in 2016, seven Pacific countries, representing different Pacific island sub-regions, raised concerns about human rights abuses in West Papua and the issue of self-determination. Last year, the PIF chair, Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea Natano, wrote a letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, seeking an update on the consultation schedule with Indonesia, which so far has rejected the U.N. request for an independent mission to West Papua.

The second thing standing in the way of a more robust Indonesian presence in the Pacific is the fact that the Pacific region is not a lucrative market for Indonesian goods and services. Indonesia has initiated a series of economic cooperation forums, such as the Indonesia-South Pacific Forum and the Pacific Exposition, to promote and expand its trade with the region. However, total Indonesian trade with the Pacific island countries is worth only some $500 million, and these island countries have never been among Indonesia’s top trading partners. Although the region is close to Indonesia’s border, the Pacific region is largely unattractive to Indonesian businessmen. A senior Indonesian diplomat I interviewed in 2018 said that only a few Indonesian businessmen were interested in investing in Pacific island nations, since the region was not economically promising and the costs of doing so were high. In contrast, the Indonesian African Forum made $1.3 billion in business transactions and announcements in 2018. The diplomat noted Africa’s larger attractiveness to Indonesian companies, some of which have invested in infrastructure projects in various African countries.

Third, the Indonesian vision of the “Indo-Pacific” places a greater focus on the Indian Ocean than the Pacific Ocean. From an Indonesian perspective, this concept identifies the country as situated at a maritime nexus, given its “crossroad location” (posisi silang), bridging the Indian and Pacific oceans and linking them to all the major Asian and Pacific powers including Australia, India, Japan, China, and the U.S., rather than Pacific island countries as such. This is understandable, since Indonesia’s geopolitical and geoeconomic interests are strategically aligned with the much larger Indo-Pacific scenario.

Although the Indo-Pacific concept is less popular among the country’s fellow ASEAN members, Indonesia is certain to pursue this form of regional architecture into the future. Indeed, in the past three years, the Indonesian foreign minister promoted the Indo-Pacific concept with ASEAN as a focus for the organization. Indonesia’s “Look West”  aspirations have also prompted its greater investment in the Indian Ocean  area. As chair of the Indian Ocean Regional Association (IORA) in 2015-17, Indonesia demonstrated its own growing importance as a key regional maritime power. Indonesian membership in IORA also aims at attracting more investment and maintaining a supportive economic environment in the region.

All in all, Indonesia will keep the Pacific outside its priority agenda in the post-COVID-19 world. With no solid regional policy, the Pacific will mostly remain a second-tier concern of Indonesia’s diplomacy for the foreseeable future.

Hipolitus Wangge is an independent researcher and member of Forum Academia NTT.

The essay is part of a research paper co-authored with Stephanie Lawson published this year (forthcoming).