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Jakarta's warmer ties with Melanesian states

Straits Times (Singapore) - September 28, 2013

Bruce Gale For some years now, it has been the West and China that have been wooing the South Pacific island states. But recent diplomatic initiatives by Papua New Guinea (PNG) and other Melanesian states suggest that these countries may now be actively looking to Indonesia and the other Asean countries to give them greater freedom to manoeuvre.

In mid-June, PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill led a delegation that included business leaders on a three-day visit to Jakarta. This was the second meeting between Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Mr O'Neill, after a similar consultation on the sidelines of the Bali Democracy Forum last year.

A series of landmark bilateral accords were inked in June; the result may well see Indonesia becoming an important player in Melanesia, a collection of island states in the south-western Pacific.

These include PNG, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji. Culturally and ethnically distinct from Asian populations to the north and east, as well as Polynesians to the west, Melanesians have in recent years come to regard themselves as forming a distinct geo-political unit.

Relations between Indonesia and the Melanesian states have been cool since 1969, when Jakarta controversially annexed Papua, the Dutch half of New Guinea, with the approval of the United Nations.

Critics of the move argued that the native Melanesian tribes were prevented from expressing a free choice. Papuan separatists have long since been using the 750km-long and mostly mountainous border area between PNG and Indonesian territory to evade Jakarta s security forces.

Reports of torture and extra-judicial killings of Papuan pro-independence activists by the Indonesian military have also strained ties with the Melanesian nations.

Ties with PNG were further complicated in 2009, when Indonesian graft suspect Djoko Tjandra fled to Port Moresby, PNG s capital. He was subsequently granted PNG citizenship.

Then, in January last year, PNG newspapers reported that Port Moresby had threatened to expel the Indonesian ambassador from the country over an incident that allegedly took place the previous November. Reports said two Indonesian military aircraft almost collided with a plane carrying senior PNG officials returning from Malaysia. Indonesia said the problem was the result of technical glitches involving flight clearance data.

In June this year, however, the long history of mistrust between the two countries seemed to be coming to an end. Dr Yudhoyono and Mr O'Neill agreed to negotiate an extradition treaty, made arrangements for PNG communities living near the Indonesian border to draw on their neighbours excess hydroelectric capacity, and began discussions on an air travel agreement that would allow direct flights between Port Moresby and Jakarta. There has even been talk of possible joint exploitation of oil and gas reserves believed to lie in border areas.

Last month, it was the turn of Solomon Islands Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo. He met the Indonesian leader at the presidential palace in Bogor, at which both countries agreed to step up cooperation in trade and other fields. Jakarta and Honiara already had technical cooperation agreements, but Mr Lilo s visit marked the first time a Solomon Islands leader had visited the country.

Jakarta's positive response towards what might otherwise be regarded as an economically insignificant region appears designed to head off growing support within the independent Melanesian states for Papuan separatism.

Earlier this year, demands by indigenous Papuans of Melanesian descent for independence from Indonesia were discussed by the Melanesian Spearhead Group, a regional trade grouping, at a summit in New Caledonia. Indonesia has responded by inviting Melanesian leaders to visit its side of the border to see for themselves how indigenous groups are treated.

Earlier this month, Mr O'Neill called for engagement with Indonesia on the issue, saying he was "encouraged" by Jakarta s response.

In rethinking their approach to Indonesia, PNG and the Solomon Islands appear to be looking to South-east Asia as they seek to balance the growing influence of Australia, the US and China. Jakarta, for example, now appears ready to support Port Moresby s application to join Asean. The Solomon Islands maintains a "Look North" policy, and plays host to Malaysian investors. Fiji employs Malaysian companies on road projects.

Encouraging trade and investment is yet another motive. Trade between Indonesia and PNG, Melanesia s largest economy, was worth a mere US$15.88 million (S$19.9million) last year. But it has been growing by over 17 per cent annually in recent years.

Although unofficial, Melanesian sympathy for Papuan separatism remains deep-seated. Vanuatu, for example, has already expressed reservations about Indonesian assurances.

Indeed, it may only take a few more reports of further human rights violations by the Indonesian military towards Papuans to undermine the entire fence-mending process.

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