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Australia at risk of becoming an island as Pacific prospers

The Australian - July 5, 2013

Ben Bohane First it was the Pacific Century, then the Asia Pacific Century, then the Asian Century with a recent nod towards the Chinese Century. Now we are hearing of the Indo-Pacific Century. Hollywood to Bollywood, as one US military officer put it recently.

A great sweep of ocean from India to the eastern shores of California is the strategic big picture, we are told.

But while Australian policymakers debate every chess move by China, India and the US a more urgent Indo-Pacific shift, this time Indonesia versus the Pacific, is happening in two areas not even named in the Australian defence white paper 2013: West Papua and Melanesia.

This is because West Papua remains the territory that dare not speak its name in Australian policy circles. By all means talk about democracy and human rights in faraway places like Syria and Burma, where Australia has little or no influence, or closer to home, hammering Fiji with an unproductive policy.

But it appears Australians can say nothing about atrocities happening on Australia's doorstep when Indonesia is involved. There is no way of putting this lightly: Australia continues to support Indonesian repression even as a growing body of international legal opinion labels Indonesian policy in West Papua a "slow moving genocide". This is not trivial.

Melanesia the region encompassing Australia's nearest neighbours (Timor Leste, West Papua, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia) likewise is not even referenced by name in the defence white paper.

This is a telling omission, as it reflects Australian policy to deal with these countries bilaterally while not understanding the growing dynamic of sub-regionalism and the importance of the Melanesian Spearhead Group that holds these nations and peoples together and is increasingly setting common policy for them.

Two weeks ago in Noumea, the leaders of Melanesia gathered for the 25th anniversary celebrations of the establishment of the MSG. Australia, close neighbour and supposed regional power, was not represented at this important gathering.

The summit also marked the transition of chairmanship from Fiji's Frank Bainimarama to Victor Tutugoro, representing the Kanaky people of New Caledonia on behalf of the pro-independence FLNKS, the Kanak Socialist Front for National Liberation.

The MSG summit not only appointed a new chairman, but for the first time invited West Papuan delegates, who have applied for membership, as "special guests". Although the decision on membership for West Papua was deferred for six months pending a planned visit to the territory by a MSG special delegation, there is now strong momentum towards membership.

This year's official communique states that leaders "endorsed that the MSG fully supports the inalienable rights of the people of West Papua towards self-determination as provided for under the preamble of the MSG constitution" as well as "endorsed that the concerns of the MSG regarding the human rights violations and other forms of atrocities relating to the West Papuan people be raised with the government of Indonesia bilaterally and as a group".

This could prompt a crisis of sorts in Australia's immediate region. Melanesian nations are moving away from both Australia and Indonesia, which prefer to keep the tragedy of West Papua under wraps.

Since the MSG's establishment in 1988, Canberra has not bothered to even apply for observer status, even as countries like China, Indonesia and Luxembourg are at the table.

Perhaps it wanted to wait until Bainimarama had left the stage as MSG chair, but the MSG summit further demonstrates how Australia has become strategically adrift from its own neighbours.

It continues to view the Pacific islands as small island states in need of aid and good governance, when it is more useful to view them now as large ocean states being courted by global powers, and comprising a significant bloc of UN votes.

Island nations want their culture appreciated, their sovereignty respected, more balanced trade and for their people not to have to jump through hoops of fire to get an Australian visa.

In West Papua, the fact that Indonesia has closed off this entire territory to all foreign media and NGOs including the Red Cross shows the extent to which Indonesia wishes to hide what it is doing there. It is a clumsy gesture, symbolic of another age.

Jakarta appears not to appreciate that successive Australian governments have never supported the West Papuans and lost much political capital in the Pacific in doing so. But Indonesia must realise this position is becoming increasingly untenable as the body count piles up and Indonesia shows no sign of ever implementing meaningful autonomy or reining in its military or the jihadis there.

As a result, Indonesia's hold over West Papua has lost its legitimacy as far as many Pacific island nations are concerned.

It is true that Indonesia has come a long way towards democracy and a free press since the fall of Suharto, but none of these progressive elements exist in West Papua, where even President SBY has no real influence over the military.

Yet the window for Indonesia to maintain control of the issue is fast closing. This is heading for the UN General Assembly, just as France is now faced with its Pacific territories like Tahiti being re-inscribed on the UN decolonisation list.

Modern multicultural Australia has forgotten the historic importance of the Pacific islands to Australia and needs its leaders to remind a new generation.

Barack Obama can declare himself a Pacific president, yet no Australian leader wants to claim our place in the region: former prime minister Julia Gillard was all about "the Asian Century", throwing away cheaply the opportunity to be a middle-power Pacific nation in the Pacific Century.

Step back from the US-China thing for now, that will play out over decades. More pressing is that Australia needs to better balance relations with Indonesia and Melanesia.

Australia's imperative is to embrace the Melanesian nations not as aid recipients and neighbours, but ultimately as family. It requires rhetoric, rolling out the red carpet and a new emphasis on soft-power diplomacy.

Australia will never be secure in Asia until it is secure and integrated with the island nations of the Pacific. It is time for Australian leaders to speak with vision and claim Australia's Pacific destiny. Applying to join the MSG would be a start.

[Ben Bohane is communications director for the Pacific Institute of Public Policy in Port Vila, Vanuatu.]

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