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Is Chinese support shaping Pacific’s stance on West Papua?

A West Papua rally in Samoa - Pacific islands are moving from a weak stance on West Papua to an action-oriented approach

MEAGHAN TOBIN | South China Morning Post | Extract

HONG KONG - Indonesia’s restive province of West Papua was gripped by violence last week as protesters clashed with police, leading Jakarta to cut internet access and send almost 1,000 additional officers to quell the unrest.

The latest demonstrations were against racist abuse suffered by West Papuan students, but a separatist movement in the region has also been simmering since 1969.

In recent years, Jakarta’s Pacific Island neighbours have become bolder in their disapproval of the [Indonesian] government’s handling of calls for independence, recently welcoming a United Nations investigation into human rights abuses in West Papua.

West Papua and the neighbouring Indonesian province of Papua share the same island as independent Papua New Guinea, which is one of 18 nations – including Australia and New Zealand – that make up the Pacific Islands Forum.

In their joint communique after the forum, the leaders called for the UN visit to be finalised and a report on the situation to be provided next year.

Indonesia, a dialogue partner at the forum, criticised the call, saying it created a negative precedent for interference in other countries’ domestic affairs.

Experts say Pacific nations feel freer to express solidarity with West Papua partly due to China’s growing presence in the region as an alternative to “traditional partners” Indonesia and Australia, which supports Jakarta’s sovereignty claim.

Though a few holdouts maintain close ties with Jakarta, analysts warn the developing consensus among Pacific leaders is driving a wedge between President Joko Widodo’s already inward-looking administration and its neighbours.

This would have an impact on the role Indonesia plays in the Indo-Pacific, as the United States, Australia and China battle for influence there.

Jakarta has in the past refused to engage with nations that have expressed support for West Papua, a stance displayed this month when Indonesia was among just 12 nations to abstain from an otherwise unanimous vote at the UN on increased engagement with the PIF nations.

Natalie Sambhi, director of Verve Research at the Perth USAsia Centre, said Indonesia might rethink its engagement with Pacific states vocal about West Papua.

“Having alternative sources of foreign direct investment from China gives them greater confidence,” Sambhi said.

China has restated its interest in the Pacific “with no political strings attached”, as regional leaders criticised Australian prime minister Scott Morrison for his unwillingness to make major policy changes to address climate change, the Forum’s top concern.

“We now see the Pacific region moving from a weak stance on West Papua to an action-oriented approach,” said George Carter, visiting fellow at University of the South Pacific in Suva.

“There is now a regional stance on the human rights violations, which clearly came out in the final statement.”

Vanuatu has been a staunch critic of Jakarta’s track record in West Papua, but the Forum in Tuvalu saw other nations such as Tonga speak out as well. The indigenous people of the Papua provinces are Melanesian and more closely linked to those in the Pacific Islands and PNG.

Joey Tau, who works with Pacific youth activist organisation Young Solwara, said strong grass roots support for West Papua had contributed to leaders taking a stand.

“The region is moving into a phase where we are able to determine our own path in addressing our priorities.

“The Pacific is trying to see where it can find real partnership for development and resources,” he said.


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