Bougainville: PNG’s very wicked policy problem
The teacher who makes the angels dance

Brief encounter, big step: Nudging closer to Indonesia

PM Marape and President Widodo in Jakarta
James Marape and Joko Widodo meet over tea in Jakarta


NOOSA – Papua New Guinean prime minister James Marape’s flying visit to Jakarta late last week drew much criticism on PNG social media because of the size of the accompanying delegation.

The cheap criticism obscured the mini-summit’s importance as an encounter where Marape and Indonesian president Joko Widodo were able to meet privately and face-to-face.

In fact the brevity of the meeting stood in sharp contrast to its importance.

It turned out to be a major initiative by Marape to recalibrate a relationship which has been drifting for at least a decade.

Marape emphasised it was common goals rather than the common border that is of greatest importance to PNG.

And, while he did not say this, it seems highly likely that the mini-summit was driven by a new recognition that - with China’s increasing embrace of the Pacific Islands, and the more assertive response this is meeting from an Australia clutching the hand of the USA - PNG requires a friend that is beholden to neither.

That friend is right next door, just a step across a shared 820 kilometer border.

To me, this meeting showed a welcome maturity and strategic consciousness in Papua New Guinean diplomacy.

After all, if the two major world powers are beginning to shadow box in your front yard and you are desirous of remaining ‘a friend to all and an enemy to none’ as PNG says it is, not aligning yourself with either is the most sensible strategic arrangement.

So the ‘look north’ policy of Michael Somare seems to have been retired and replaced by the ‘look next door’ policy of James Marape, with next door being west not south.

The reason for this is, to me, inescapable.

Australia seems to have decided that balancing the China-US relationship was both too hard and ideologically testing, so it has thrown in its lot with the US.

Foolishly, Australia (or more accurately the Morrison government) also thought acting grown up meant it must show fealty to America by deriding China.

That stance could not be less in the interests of Papua New Guinea.

In his meeting with Widodo, Marape referred to a forgotten treaty that PNG and Indonesia agreed in 2013 when Peter O’Neill was prime minister and retired army general Susilo Bambang (SBY) Yudhoyono was Indonesian president.

Peter O'Neill and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Bali, 2012 (Adek Berry, AFP)

The context of that agreement was very much West Papua: border issues, the continuing guerrilla war and human rights abuses against pro-independence activists.

Indonesia's main political goal at the time was to ensure PNG’s support for Indonesia's territorial integrity and its efforts to suppress the rebel Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, OPM).

While that goal has not changed - although Indonesia seems to be seeking more creative political rather than military means of stabilising West Papua - the greater global issue of China’s ambitions reshaping Asia-Pacific geopolitics looks like being the big concern for the next couple of decades at least.

In 2014 the Lowy Institute published a monograph, rather snidely titled, ‘More talk than walk: Indonesia as a foreign policy actor, arguing that “as a foreign policy actor, Indonesia is not quite the next big thing”.

The analysis, by academic Dr Dave McRae, concluded:

“By engaging on regional and global issues that are important to Indonesia and help it be seen as a global player, prospective partner countries such as Australia can build trust and relationships that will make their overall bilateral relationship with Indonesia more robust.”

Well, that was in 2014 and this is now, and no current analysis would be certain that Australia could build up that kind of trust with Indonesia – after all, to get too close to Australia’s feckless and unsubtle foreign policy is to move into uncharted reef-strewn waters.

Today, in a rapidly and radically shifting regional strategic environment, both Indonesia and PNG can see many benefits in a closer relationship.

Perhaps the prospect of PNG entering ASEAN, a long held dream, is also much closer now.

As for the Comprehensive Partnership Agreement of 2013, let James Marape tell the short story: “Unfortunately, after nine years, those exchanges have not progressed further.”

And so to the recent meeting….

Thanking Widodo for agreeing to it at short notice, Marape said:

“We have always had a good relationship. Indonesia stood with us in many fronts.

“From when we became formal bilateral partners in 1976 and [when] you were responsible for our admission to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) membership.

“You have always been there for us in some difficult times, as we have struggled as a nation in our crisis days, in our stressful financial days.”

Marape particularly thanked Widodo for the Indonesian Department of Health’s assistance in PNG’s desperate fight against Covid: “We - PNG government, business houses and leaders and public servants - will forever be grateful to Indonesia as we have been in the past.”

And there I was thinking that Australia had all this well in hand. Seems not.

Marape also made a point of emphasising that he had been accompanied on the visit by his ministers and private sector leaders so they could meet their Indonesian counterparts “to get them connected” and ensure the relationships are there “for our two nations to coexist going into the future supporting each other”.

He also said the countries ties must move from a focus on the border to a focus on trade and economic links:

“Some relationships we have are not by choice … but they exist by the design of God,” Marape said.

“For us, PNG and Indonesia, it is a relationship that we cannot ignore.

“We are not just friends, but more than brothers and sisters; our nations have been together and existed since time immemorial.

“For so long, we have held discussions and focused on border issues.

“These discussions today with the president and myself were outside of border and more into trade, business, economy, public service exchanges, health and education exchanges.”

Marape said a Defence Cooperation Agreement will soon be finalised and thanked Widodo for inviting the Pacific Islands Forum to the margins of the G20 meeting to be held in Bali in October.

He also invited President Widodo to visit PNG this year.

It seems Papua New Guinea could teach Australia a thing or two about diplomacy.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church is an ally of Vladimir Putin and supports what he is doing in Ukraine. See the following link and others in the same vein.

I'm with Rowan Williams, boot them out of the World Council of Churches.

Bernard Corden

This is not here:

I hope someday you will join us.

Arthur Williams

Love your neighbour is one of the tenets of the Christian religion and indeed is admirable in any person. For months the World's politicians and churches were sadly to no avail: praying, begging, cajoling, threatening Russia to do just that. Yesterday the BBC reported that in a show of Un-Neighbourly love the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams apparently wants the Russian Orthodox Church removed from the world council of is appears to be open season for sanctions and following the trend his is would be a Welsh sort of clerical sanction. I have read his actual March 8 comment and apparently he only wanted Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church to ask his government to Stop The War and demand peace.

PNG's PM Marape who is an alleged fervent member of the SDA Church is therefore surely a teetotaller like a lot of Indonesians. So it seems he may merely have been supping strong Luwak Coffee rather than SP, aka Tiger aka Heinken's local beer on his trip to the sinking capital Jakarta when he claims the population of the largest Islamic nation in the world are PNG's brothers and sisters. Did he manage to ask the RI President to Halt Church Demolitions in Aceh where in its Singkil District during the past seven years, at least 30 churches including Catholic ones have been demolished while permits for new ones are constantly rejected. One reason for that may be the establishment of a church requires the signature of at least 120 local Muslims. Being on an Australian website I also would just refer back to the Bali bombing

Anyway I hope one day if PNG PM's survives the USB & Motukea Inquiries that he sits down with a Commonwealth leader namely the head of the SDA Church in Nigeria and garner his views on the savage kidnapping, forced marriages and killings of Christians by fanatical Muslims. I could point you towards most of ravaged nations around Sahel and The Lakes these days. I know that on some special 13th Sabbaths there are prayers which Marape joins in with for persecuted SDA Christians.

Its quite OK Sir to be pragmatic and afraid of the very big non-Christian neighbour and perhaps potential putative PNG populator but there is no need to lick his boots especially while your 'Brothers and Sisters in Christ' suffer under the West Papua's own Day Of Infamy the illegally acquired mandate by a mere 1,025 people out of an estimated population of 800,000 in 1969 yet supported technically by the UNO.

I have no doubt that what Arthur offers is heartfelt but, from where I sit, also as an old man, I know the pathway to effective nationhood involves a striving for collaboration and friendship with neighbours.

There are some 220,000 adherents of the Seventh Day Adventism in Indonesia, including 10,000 in West Papua and the Indonesian SDA church says this about its status:

"The climate toward Seventh-day Adventists and other Christians is changing as more Adventists work in government and parliament from the national level down to district and even subdistrict levels.

"Some political policies and regulations are bringing about some benefits to the spread of the gospel."

I think we should be generous in our response to a striving for greater harmony and vigilant in our scrutiny of what is being achieved - KJ

Lindsay F Bond

It seems free trade executive vacations were not on the agenda, yet humanity meeting human needs just might rise to a visible surface.

That it might in time evolve to trust and believable communications. I want to see that.

So, as a tester in Torres Strait, how about dependable lines of of communication at local level, polite requests and resource monitoring?

No need for a central Asian economy to be in on that.

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