Early this year, Retno Marsudi, Indonesia’s foreign minister, proclaimed that her nation was a part of the community of Pacific nations. Retno’s statement echoed the words of the former Indonesian ambassador to New Zealand, who declared in 2020 that Indonesia was the largest Pacific island nation. Both were examples of rhetoric that betrayed the Indonesian government’s lack of genuine understanding of and clear agenda toward the Pacific region.
This rhetoric of membership in the Pacific community is barely reflected at the domestic level, and Indonesia has long perceived itself as solely Asian rather than Pacific. The main reason Indonesia has intensified its presence in the Pacific is the region’s growing concern about the human rights abuses that have taken place during the conflict in Papua, and support for the political aspirations of Papuans. As an important regional actor in the Asia-Pacific region, Indonesia needs to play more diverse roles in the Pacific – something that will require a deeper and more critical understanding of the region.
Over the past few years, the Pacific has emerged as a fulcrum of geopolitical competition between big powers, chiefly the United States and China. Other crucial actors, such as Australia, New Zealand, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Japan, South Korea, and India, have also increased their activities and presence in the region.
The problem is that the growing tensions have sidelined many of the core concerns of the Pacific island countries themselves. Pacific islanders have long been perceived as dependent on international donors. Yet, in the past decade, the island nations have taken actions to be equally respected and accommodated in international politics.
The region has advanced the notion of the Blue Pacific, first introduced in 2017 at the 18-nation Pacific Islands Forum in Samoa, as a framework for cooperation and collaboration between Pacific Island nations and non-Pacific countries to address regional vulnerabilities. This is a distinctive narrative, strategy, and vision that seeks to address their primary existential threat – climate change – in place of the Indo-Pacific narrative that is being championed by many external powers, which is driven by economic and security imperatives.
In other words, Pacific nations are no longer the passive recipients of development grants and peripheral actors in their region. They are crucial to determining their priorities at the regional and global levels. This stance is the foundation on which external parties can engage with the Pacific Island nations.
The Pacific is still very much uncharted territory for Indonesia. As mentioned above, the primary driving force of Jakarta’s Pacific policy, since its first engagement with the region in the mid-1980s, has been its strategic interest in constraining regional support for both the independence movements in East Timor (prior to 2002) and the Papuan independence movement. Beyond this, the Pacific has been dramatically absent from its diplomatic agenda.
That has begun to change in recent years, during which the country has sought to bolster its presence in the region. Development aid, financial grants, and technical assistance have been the main instruments of Indonesian engagement. These have been supplemented by a few high-level visits and regional development forums that have sought to boost Indonesia’s presence in the region, including President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s visit to Papua New Guinea in July of this year.
PNG is the only Pacific country to be visited by Jokowi, who has now visited it twice in his nearly 10 years in office. Moreover, after Fiji Prime Minister Siteveni Rabuka met Benny Wenda, the Papuan independence leader, in February, Indonesia ceased viewing Fiji as a strategic partner, as it did during Frank Bainimarama’s administration, leaving PNG as the most prominent supporter of Indonesia’s interests in the Pacific. Added to these bilateral engagements was the convening of the first Indonesia-Pacific Development Forum in Bali last year.
Jakarta’s growing attention toward the Pacific aims at deriving economic and diplomatic benefits without taking a side in the tug-of-war between China and the United States and its allies in the region. Given its increasing presence in the region and its rhetoric of being a “Pacific” nation, the question remains: to what extent do Indonesians understand themselves as part of a Pacific community?
In general, Indonesians barely understand the Pacific, its region, people, and interests. If the term Pacific has entered into the national discourse, it is usually related to the internationalization of the Papua issue. Pacific literacy is mostly absent in university-level teaching, where the region receives scant attention, compared to Europe, North America, Africa, and East Asia. Although Indonesia shares a border with the Pacific region, and even though thousands of Indonesian students are receiving a graduate education in Australia and New Zealand, there are dramatically limited opportunities to learn about the region. Indonesia has no renowned expert on the Pacific and the country has only one research center focusing on the region, in Jayapura.
The lack of public discourse about the Pacific region exhibits how far behind Indonesia is in anticipating and addressing its interests and the geopolitical tensions in the region, beyond countering narratives about Papua.
The Pacific rhetoric is mostly for domestic consumption, and there has been no strong commitment among relevant actors to support the country’s Pacific diplomacy. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been the main actor in this space, but has not received strong political support from other government agencies and the national parliament. As a maritime country, Indonesia shares multiple problems with the Pacific nations, such as climate change, disaster management, illegal fishing, marine pollution, drug smuggling, coastal-based infrastructure, and women’s empowerment. Indonesia has the capacity to collectively address regional issues through bilateral cooperation or institutional engagement, such as the Pacific Island Forum. The Foreign Ministry’s establishment of a Directorate for Pacific and Oceania, which was established in 2021, is a welcome development. Yet, without sufficient financial and human support, the office will not generate a meaningful Pacific agenda.
Compared with the other latecomers in the region, such as India and South Korea, Indonesia’s high-level diplomatic engagement is limited to ministerial meetings. In contrast, India has convened the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation, the third of its kind, which was most recently held in Papua New Guinea in May. South Korea launched its first-ever South Korea Pacific Islands Summit in the same month. Neither country has ever claimed to be part of the Pacific nations or Pacific “family,” but their policies and initiatives display a strong commitment to engage with the region.
By contrast, Indonesia has so far only initiated the Pacific Exposition, a cultural and trade event, and the 2022 Indonesia Pacific Development Forum, the effectiveness of which remains to be seen. Most recently, following Jokowi’s visit to PNG last month, the Indonesian government has agreed to sponsor thousands of PNG students to attend university in Indonesia. In this regard, continuity is the key aspect, as reflected by past forums and programs that stalled without strong support from the relevant stakeholders in Indonesia. Challenges of financial support and collective political will have and will hamper Jakarta’s engagement in the region. Yet, the critical aspect is Pacific literacy, which can help to underpin the nation’s sustainable engagement with the region over the long term.
For Indonesia, the Pacific region remains crucial. The country needs more strategic engagement to deal with the effect of geopolitical competition in the region and, most importantly, to participate in resolving shared regional problems. At home, Indonesia has to initiate more public discourse and understanding of the Pacific region, address Pacific concerns over the human rights problems in Papua, and actively advocate for the notion of the Blue Pacific, as a sign of shared commitment to the Pacific region and its people.