Business as usual for PNG–Indonesia relations

18 June 2022, Author: Hipolitus Wangge, ANU

Prime Minister James Marape visited Jakarta at the invitation of Indonesian President Joko Widodo in March 2022 — a few months ahead of PNG’s national elections. While the trip was designed to boost his administration’s economic credentials by diversifying PNG’s trade with Southeast Asian countries, Indonesia saw the visit as an opportunity to expand its influence in PNG and the Pacific.

Indonesia President Joko Widodo gives books to a child to promote reading among children, Sentani, Papua province, Indonesia, 30 April 2016 (Photo: Reuters/Antara Foto/Indrayadi).

The increasing presence of China and the dominance of Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific region are prompting the Pacific islands to search for strategic alternatives. Marape sees Indonesia — a source of trade and investment for PNG — as an attractive option.

Indonesia–PNG trade reached US$322 million in 2021, up from US$212 million in 2020, with agricultural products and petroleum as the main exports of both countries. This increase is partly due to close economic relations between the two countries and the strong political commitment to strengthen their local economies over the past three years. It is also in line with Marape’s ‘Take Back PNG’ policy that aims to maximise local gains from international companies jointly operating PNG resource projects, including Indonesia’s state energy firm Pertamina.

Border policies have also become a priority in Widodo’s ‘development from the periphery’ agenda. The main reason people cross the PNG–Indonesian border is for market activities. Indonesia’s construction of substantial border facilities to support marketplace activity reflects its strong commitment to developing the area to the mutual benefit of both countries.

The only less developed border area is Bintang Mountains regency, a remote area lacking in infrastructure to support cross-border economic activities. The regency remains a hotspot of armed conflict in Papua, forcing a significant number of indigenous Papuans to cross into PNG.

Indonesia gave almost US$17 million to Pacific island countries from 2014 to 2020, with PNG and Fiji being the biggest recipients. PNG received around US$3 million of financial and technical assistance from Indonesia, while Indonesia also provides humanitarian and development assistance in the form of ambulance units, vocational training, medical assistance, construction projects and post-disaster relief.

But high-level diplomacy and cooperation does not resonate at the grassroots level. There are barely any Pacific-oriented institutions in Indonesia to support a better understanding of the region. The Indonesian government-funded Indo-Pacific research centre at Cenderawasih University reflects Indonesia’s security-centric approach.

This is unlikely to change in the near future, especially given that the priority for Indonesian foreign policy is not the Pacific but Asia, the Middle East and even Europe. Yet people in the Pacific region, including in PNG, have shown serious concerns over human rights conditions and Papuan political aspirations that the Indonesian government has failed to address.

Marape’s visit to Indonesia occurred when the Papua issue was a crucial concern in the Pacific region. The UN Pacific Regional Forum has urged the Indonesian government to allow the UN Human Rights Commission to investigate human rights conditions in Papua since 2019, but Jakarta resists inviting the commission on the grounds that the situation is part of its ‘internal affairs’. This will not improve Indonesia’s international standing and reinforces the emptiness of its Pacific rhetoric.

PNG has provided a base for Papuan political activists and guerrilla fighters for years. The Free Papua Movement supporters and members have built camps along the border to provide bases for guerrilla fighting, campaigning, sanctuary and logistical support.

Since the 1960s, thousands of indigenous Papuans have crossed the border into PNG due to security concerns. Almost a thousand indigenous Papuans from Kiwirok crossed the border into PNG following an Indonesian military operation in 2021. Yet the PNG Defence Force lacks the resources to oversee cross border passing and potential security threats.

In contrast to how the UN Human Rights Commission dealt with Papuan refugees in the 1980s, the UN agency has insufficient capacity to deal with the influx of Papuan refugees to PNG due to an escalation of ongoing armed conflict in highland areas.

Marape also highlighted triparty security cooperation between PNG, Indonesia and Australia in his first official visit, a step that was somewhat premature because Indonesia and Australia have not put much emphasis on PNG in their security agenda for the Asia Pacific. For Indonesia, PNG only presents challenges in traditional cross-border crimes, such as illegal trading, illegal trespassing, and drug smuggling.

Indonesia ultimately prefers to pursue cooperation with Australia and New Zealand in its bid to be part of the regional architecture. Indonesia’s security cooperation and military exercises with Australia, rather than PNG, have increased in the past decade. Australia’s interest in the Pacific region has been focussed on containing China’s presence rather than understanding the interests and values of Pacific island countries, including PNG. There is hope for the new Labor government to wholeheartedly engage with Pacific Island countries, but a significant change in Australian policy in the region remains to be seen.

PNG and Indonesia’s relationship reflects the strategic continuity of the past three decades. Since both countries need each other to secure their domestic interests and international agendas, they are likely to prioritise the economy and business, with less focus on political and security issues.

Hipolitus Wangge is a PhD Scholar and Researcher at the Australian National University.

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