Diplomacy on a tightrope over asylum-seekers

Greg Sheridan
6 April 2006

Upsetting Jakarta over Papua could lead to an Islamist and a nationalist backlash in Indonesia, writes Greg Sheridan

AUSTRALIA could be drifting towards a fearful crisis in its relations with Indonesia over West Papua. We are not there yet, rather we are exquisitely poised. If it turns out another group of Papuan asylum-seekers has arrived then the crisis begins.

It is useful to try to look at the situation from the separate points of view of Jakarta, Canberra and the Papuans.

From Jakarta's point of view, its core interests as a viable nation are at stake. I had the pleasure of interviewing Indonesia's estimable president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in December. His goodwill towards Australia is palpable. He established a special relationship with Australia when, as security minister, he made a moving address on the first anniversary, in 2003, of the Bali bombings.

He has developed a relationship of genuine warmth with John Howard. He appreciates Australia's assistance in response to the tsunami and our help in restoring Indonesia's good name with Washington. But all of that counts for very little if Australia becomes, even unwillingly, a threat to the very core of Indonesian national existence. Indonesia is a multi-national, multi-religious state. The Christians and animists of West Papua are no more foreign to predominantly Muslim Indonesia than the Hindus of Bali, the Protestants of West Timor, the Catholics of Flores or the mystics of Java itself.

Indonesia is the successor state to the Dutch East Indies. Unlike East Timor, which was a Portuguese colony, West Papua was a Dutch colony and the Indonesians always claimed sovereignty over it, although the Dutch did not surrender it until 1962.

The Freeport mine in West Papua generates literally billions of dollars of revenue for the Jakarta Government, in a nation which is still very poor. Indonesians remember that for more than two decades Australia recognised their sovereignty over East Timor. Indeed, East Timor would never have become independent had Indonesia's eccentric president, B.J. Habibie, not decided to grant it a referendum in 1999. And he probably wouldn't have done that had he realised the natural resources East Timor commands.

Politicians on both sides in Australia have been foolish to talk of our having liberated East Timor. Until the very day of the referendum Australia's formal policy objective was to keep East Timor part of Indonesia. Our troops went into East Timor following an invitation from the Indonesian Government. Canberra never contemplated, and could not have carried out, an opposed operation in East Timor.

But talking that way helps convince the Indonesians that Australia always, or at least for some time, had a secret plan to make East Timor independent. So they are less inclined to believe Australian spokesmen when they say they fully support Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua.

Yudhoyono and other Indonesian leaders believe that the loss of West Papua would severely harm their economy, humiliate their nation in a much more profound way than East Timor did and threaten the Indonesian national project.

They are a long way from this nasty scenario but they recognise that the road to that scenario lies through Australia. It's a road they don't want to take. To put it another way, Australia is the critical swing factor in the politics of West Papua.

If a substantial West Papua community is established in Australia, if it enlists the sympathy of the media, the churches and the NGOs, that is the way the issue will get on to the international stage. Barbara Boxer, Patrick Leahy and many others in the US Congress could be told a story about Muslim extremists suppressing a Christian minority. This could even take on hues of the war on terror.

The pro-Indonesian sentiment in the US, and especially the US Congress, is so weak that an even moderately competent lobbying operation based in Australia could see Indonesia again cut off from US military aid, cast as the international villain, shunned by so-called ethical investors.

Australian policy-makers must understand that this engages core Indonesian national interests. From Canberra's point of view it has no interest in helping destabilise Indonesia's national unity. The process of Indonesia breaking up would be incredibly violent and lead to a number of marginally viable states easily prone to terrorist, Islamist or criminal influence.

Almost nothing is as important to Australian security as the success and good disposition of Indonesia. Yudhoyono has questioned whether Indonesia will continue co-operating in the suppression of the people smuggling trade. Australia would have a national nervous breakdown if once more confronted with hundreds of boatpeople arriving, but that could easily happen.

Canberra has large numbers of federal police and ASIS agents in Indonesia working against people-smuggling and terrorist threats. Any wind-back on co-operation from the Indonesian side in either of those areas could result in significant threats to Australia.

Consider too East Timor and Papua New Guinea. Both are independent nations but they are really Australian military protectorates with their security de facto guaranteed by Australia. With a high degree of plausible deniability the Indonesian military could easily create vast trouble on the borders of those nations, leading their governments to request our military help. This would be a diabolical mess for Australia.

Canberra knows it is in danger of creating both an Islamist and a nationalist backlash in Indonesia. The Indonesian Islamists saw how we treated Muslim asylum-seekers, fleeing Saddam Hussein's regime which had caused the deaths of at least 1.5 million people, in 2001 and the great lengths Canberra went to to make sure they couldn't come to Australia. The Indonesian nationalists will be enraged by the threat to Indonesia's sovereignty. Uniting the nationalists and the Islamists in anti-Australian sentiment would be a remarkable double.

A key objective of Canberra, therefore, will be to make sure there is no ongoing flow of boatpeople from Papua to Australia. Perhaps this will involve Pacific solution Mark II. Yet the politics of this are very tricky. At this stage at least Papuans are popular in Australia, much more so than distressed Muslims from the Middle East.

Finally the West Papuan independence movement itself can see the past few months as its most productive in years. It has achieved oceans of good publicity, divided Jakarta and Canberra and established a small base for itself in an important Western country. It has a huge incentive to keep Papuans coming to Australia.

We are not in crisis yet, but all the ingredients are there.

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