The recent fatal and destructive conflicts in the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua, part of decades-long violence against the people of Papua, have received little reaction from the United States, China and Indonesia’s neighbours.
Countries well known for their human rights commitments have refrained from offering any comment or criticism. There has also been little, if any, comment from neighbouring countries like the Southeast Asian bloc of ASEAN member states, Australia and Papua New Guinea.
Has the international community completely turned its back on Papua – an island with rich resources and potential but with the lowest human development index in Indonesia?
Indonesia’s strategic position in today’s geopolitical configuration helps explain this silence.
Influential and important
Indonesia is geopolitically important. As the largest archipelagic nation in the world, Indonesia is located between the Pacific and Indian oceans. It is the fourth-most-populous nation with the largest Muslim population in the world.
Indonesia, as the largest market in Southeast Asia with a significant number of Chinese diaspora, is important for China and vice versa.
As the co-founder of ASEAN, Indonesia hosts its secretariat and contributes significantly to its key policies.
Indonesia, for example, proposed the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific and had it endorsed by all member states in less than one year. What makes the outlook better than other initiatives relating to the vast Indo-Pacific region is its inclusivity principle, to ensure the new regional architecture would be inclusive and open to all. This took Indonesia even further onto the global stage.
Lack of response from big names
US and China are key actors in today’s geopolitical configuration. The world’s two largest economies obviously have their own national interests.
As they are involved in an ongoing trade war, their balancing strategy matters significantly.
China is expanding its global influence through the Belt and Road Initiative. This global development strategy focuses on infrastructure development and investments.
Indonesia’s current administration prioritises massive infrastructure development, which is in line with China’s global development strategy. Indonesia needs Chinese investment. In return, China needs Indonesia for its global expansion.
Thus, China does not want to upset Indonesia, as Chinese infrastructure and investment interests in Indonesia are at stake. The lack of response from China on the Papua issue is also probably because the Chinese government has been traditionally less interested in human rights issues.
At the same time, to protect its global interests, the US recently launched its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, in which Indonesia’s geographical position is important.
As well as having economic interests such as the Freeport investment and mining production in Papua, the US perceives Indonesia as critical to stability and progress in Southeast Asia – a key region in its Indo-Pacific Strategy.
The US is reluctant to make any comment on Papua. At a recent meeting between US Assistant Secretary for the East Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau David R. Stillwell and Indonesian presidential chief of staff Moeldoko, both high-ranking officials avoided discussion on Papua.
These bilateral relations with Indonesia serve the geopolitical players’ interests well. They see no reason to upset their relationship with Indonesia by offering criticism on the Papua issue.
In Australia, Human Rights Watch has voiced concerns over the situation, but the Australian government have not been as vocal.
As for ASEAN nations, they are barred by the bloc’s non-interference principle from even insinuating concern about Papua.
Recently, thousands of people in Papua New Guinea, which borders Papua, held a solidarity march in support of West Papua. Yet the government of Papua New Guinea regards the issue as an Indonesian domestic problem.
Actions still needed
Indonesia seems to have executed its balancing strategy well through bilateral relations and has been getting support for its policies on Papua. However, it has to work hard to continue do so.
If Indonesia mishandles Papua’s resentment and commits human right violations, military cooperation with the US will be harmed. US law prohibits cooperation with any party with a record of human rights violations.
Equally as important, Indonesia needs to adjust its interests in foreign investment with China’s economic interests in the country, particularly in Papua, so as not to create further resentment among Papuans.
The Nduga incident in Papua last year is a reminder that infrastructure development projects are not always the best approach to narrow the economic and social gap between Papua and the rest of Indonesia.
Keep feet on the ground
While the geopolitical actors are individually reluctant to upset their established bilateral relationships with Indonesia, the international community does not turn a deaf ear to the pleas from the people of Papua.
A few days after four civilians died in a rally in Jayapura on September 2 2019, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement of concern.
The office encouraged Indonesian authorities “to engage in dialogue with the people of Papua and West Papua on their aspirations and concerns, as well as to restore internet services and refrain from any excessive use of force”.
The international community is now keeping watch over Indonesia’s commitment to protect the universal rights of the people of Papua.