The great power competition that has emerged between the United States and China over the Indo-Pacific has seen Australia and Indonesia enhance political linkages to retain their regional autonomy. This renewed cooperation between Canberra and Jakarta is described under the umbrella of the Plan of Action for the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (2020-2024). The plan lays out fertile areas of cooperation including cultural exchange, economic opportunity, and military training.
For Canberra, having such legislative architecture in place serves a strategic function of minimizing the probability of an Indonesia that is hostile or indifferent to Australia. Doing so preserves and enhances the security and prosperity of both countries during a time of great shifts in the international system. As country’s jockey for influence in the region, competition between authoritarianism and liberal democracy is playing out. Australia perceives itself to be a champion of liberal democracy, and it is in this space where the problem of West Papua in the Australia-Indonesia relationship emerges.
The problem of West Papua lies in its incorporation into the Republic of Indonesia. The region was formally annexed into Indonesia by the 1969 ‘Act of Free Choice’. Although a referendum, it was conducted unfairly. Indonesia’s government gathered 1025 Papuan chieftains to participate on behalf of their constituencies. These individuals were found either because they were pro-Indonesian annexation, or threatened with violence if they wanted to express a dissenting opinion.
Despite this revelation in the 1990s, political attitudes towards Indonesia had changed with the coming Suharto’s New Order in 1966. It was pro-Western and anti-communist, thus the issue was not pursued. Today, there is significant tension between Jakarta and West Papua across a spectrum. These issues include armed conflict, ineffective development, cultural eradication, jurisdictional corruption, media suppression, and insufficient political representation.
Australia is an unambiguous ally of the U.S., in part because both bodies hold dear the values of economic, personal, and political freedoms that come with having a liberal and democratic system. These beliefs have compelled Australia to speak on the human rights violations experienced by the Uyghurs, in spite of diplomatic and economic reprisals from China. They have been so essential to the prosperity of Australia. Therefore, Australia ought to be opposed to the illiberal way in which Indonesia treats West Papua.
However, when the Plan of Action discusses matters of justice it refers to external threats like terrorism, human trafficking, and the drug trade, ignoring the internal issue that is West Papua. Furthermore, Australia’s participation in policy and military training exercises with Indonesia has problematic outcomes for West Papua’s people. An extensive report from the Guardian Australia draws the connection between the cooperation on anti-terrorism and anti-people smuggling training. The training was given by the Australian Federal Police to the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation. This connection was established in the aftermath of the 2002 Bali Bombings, to increasing the effectiveness of oppression in West Papua.
While the initiative has been immensely successful at preventing large scale terrorist attacks, there are no guardrails to prevent the lessons learned from Australian institutions in the arena of domestic conflict. By increasing the capacity of Indonesia’s policy and military to counteract potential terrorist threats, Australia’s education contributes to these institutions’ oppression of West Papuans. The realpolitik that underpins Australia’s conceptions of regional security demands the subordination of their values, to guarantee a strong relationship with Indonesia.
Middle powers like Australia are often charged with the quality of having innovative and creative diplomatic solutions, because they cannot change the world through force. The protection of human rights is an issue of increasing priority in multiple contexts and inseparable from the values Australia aims to represent. Indonesia is a near neighbor and the two countries have worked together on domestic issues, most recently the ongoing support to combat COVID-19. It stands to reason that should Australia attempt to lead a mediation effort to end this conflict. It would be fruitful because it has the resources to support resolutions that result from mediation. Canberra has also cultivated strong relationships with other states that could contribute to these processes both monetarily and at the negotiating table.
This would not be an easy issue for Australia to address alone. For instance, any western country intervening directly and without international approval in the domestic matters of a Southeast Asian country conjures the spectre of colonialism. It invites pushback from a variety of places regardless of intention. Australia could allocate its aid to target humanitarian efforts in West Papua, however, this is only a temporary solution. It does little to resolve root causes of the conflict, and would persist after this proposed period of targeted aid ends.
There is greater risk in attempting to address systemic dysfunction because it raises uncomfortable questions to leadership figures. There would be significant geo-strategic consequences if Canberra were to mishandle its approach to Jakarta because it would squander goodwill built. It would also setback the various strategic objectives pinned to maintain a positive bilateral relationship. Therefore, Australia should look to put its influence behind multilateral efforts for peace in West Papua.
A multilateral approach has important implications for how the peace process is perceived. It shows there is regional and international pushback to the human rights abuses in West Papua. As such, it would then be difficult to ascribe neo-colonial intent to Australian action on the issue. A multilateral initiative also becomes a vehicle to build political will in the domestic environment. Additionally, within the context of the ongoing great power competition, this process would demonstrate how a coalition of democracies can work collaboratively on complex human rights and development issues.
A natural avenue for multilateral coordination on West Papua in Australia’s regional setting is the Pacific Island Forum (PIF). The PIF is a regional organization and forum that provides a venue for all Pacific Island countries, including Australia and New Zealand, to work on political and economic challenges. The group also emphasises a communal approach to tackle issues like development and social inclusion. Among this cohort Papua New Guinea is unique, as it is the only country to share a land border with West Papua.
The issue of West Papua has been on the PIF’s agenda since 2000 and in recent years, has become a more frequent issue for discussion. The group aims to cooperate with Indonesia to open constructive dialogues and working with the United Nations Council of Human Rights. The PIF was granted the opportunity in 2017 by Indonesia to send an independent Electoral Observer Team to oversee regional elections in Papua province and to make recommendations on potentially improving the process. Indonesia invited the PIF Secretariat to speak at the 10th Bali Democracy Forum in 2017. Both signal that cooperation is possible, despite the PIF acknowledging the shortcomings of Indonesia’s policies in West Papua.
The example set by the PIF is instructive, showing that Australia can work on human rights issues with Indonesia, without jeopardizing its positive relationship. Canberra’s current positive relationship with Jakarta, combined with various multinational networks, are Australia’s greatest assets in attempting to utilize its capacity as a provider of developmental aid and peacemaker. Australia then must find the political will to broach this difficult issue with Indonesia and work more thoroughly with its partners in the PIF. Successfully mediating an end to this conflict is not only a public good for the region, but an opportunity to reinforce the ideological beliefs that Australia represents during a period of strategic tensions between countries.