Jakarta courts Suva: less, and more, than meets the eye

Cynics will be tempted to dismiss President Yudhoyono’s appearance at last month’s Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) summit—the first visit by an Indonesian president to Fiji—as a combination of Jakarta’s seeking to neutralise Melanesian agitation about West Papua and Suva’s ‘I get along without you very well’ bravado directed at Australia and NZ. But while there’s something to that view, it disregards longer-term undercurrents at our peril.

Let’s start with a skeptical take on Suva’s ‘more Jakarta less Canberra claim’. Fiji created the PIDF, following Suva’s suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum, to address perceptions that Australia and NZ have undue influence there, while civil society, private sector, and non-traditional external bodies are underrepresented. Yet only a handful of leaders from the Forum’s 16 states attended. Without greater funding, the PIDF has little potential to compete with the practical functions performed by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community’s bureaucrats, let alone the vital fisheries, health, education and other services delivered by the Forum. Liked or not, Australia remains the region’s indispensable donor and security hub. The Bainimarama government’s detractors predict bodies such as the PIDF will fizzle out as soon as Fiji returns to democracy.

But Suva’s unlikely simply to ‘return to the Forum’s fold’ after its September elections, and discontent with the established regional order extends well beyond Fiji. It’s easy to overstate that unhappiness: a degree of ‘perennial Pacific irritation’ at ANZAC dominance is inevitable—our economy’s nearly 400 times larger than Fiji’s—and isn’t necessarily disastrous. But it’d be imprudent to dismiss widespread and deep frustration. That dissatisfaction’s partly a legacy of Australia’s 2003–07 ‘more interventionist approach’, which stifled the region’s political voice, even though the Forum had been established precisely to provide the arena for debate (and soapbox) existing technocratic bodies lacked. Such a ‘tough love’ approach dispensed with the convention that Canberra and Wellington would leave island countries firmly in the driver’s seat. In light of 9/11 and the Bali bombings, that convention seemed to Australia and NZ to encourage frivolous grandstanding in the Forum and divert its focus on concrete outcomes—but hadn’t looked that way to many island leaders.

That divergence of view eased as a ‘partnerships’ narrative replaced interventionist discourse following Australia’s 2007 change of government, and may decrease further with the new government’s cooperative approach. But the way Pacific countries often now choose to caucus in blocs that exclude Australia and NZ, such as the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) and the UN’s Pacific Small Island Developing States Group, seems set to continue.

Indonesia’s attention to its South Pacific neighbours may have defused a spike in support for West Papuan self-determination for now, but Jakarta’s $20 million ‘look east’ policy isn’t an entirely rhetorical gesture either. As Lowy colleagues note, the outgoing president would hardly have taken a 90-person entourage to Fiji just to send a signal on West Papua. Rather, the visit was probably an example of Indonesia’s nascent but genuine diplomatic activism. After all, one of the key tenets of Yudhoyono’s foreign policy has been to foster a ‘million friends and zero enemies’. It’s also in Indonesia’s interests that its eastern flank remain stable and prosperous. To this end, Indonesia appears to be broadening the basis of cooperation with Pacific Island states across issues of mutual interest, including trade and investment, disaster management, sociocultural relations between Indonesia’s eastern province and Pacific Island peoples, and information sharing on developing connectivity between remote islands.

So what can we do to offer the new type of small-middle power relationship some neighbours want (and Fiji demands) to boost continuing followership of our leadership, when regional countries feel they have alternative partners?

For a start, we should recognise that new bodies such as the PIDF offer the region’s traditional metropolitan powers opportunities as well as challenges. It’s pointless to view as a threat Pacific countries’ desire to lead, generate ideas, and get irritations off their chest, on regional concerns such as climate change. Indeed, some such groups are more likely to formulate sensible policies for the Forum and others to implement if we aren’t around to moderate—and thus backhandedly prompt—adventurous positions.

We should also embrace the new framework for Pacific regionalism making more-than-cosmetic changes to the stalled 2005 Pacific Plan for integration when it’s discussed at the Forum summit later this month. (We could support Fiji’s candidate to head the Forum, if the MSG gets behind him, too.) On the trade front, although liberalisation should deliver long-term net benefits, including access to international markets and investment through WTO compliance, immediate-term pain adjusting could be high, particularly through the loss of tariff revenues. Our PACER Plus negotiators might do more to incorporate Pacific calls for labour mobility, and innovative approaches to co-producing development in remote economies, to help deliver agreement this year.

Finally, we could initiate ANZAC–Indonesia–Pacific Islands cooperation to reflect shared strategic interests, at a pace all participants would be comfortable with.

For Australia, there’s a security case for revitalising South Pacific regionalism and economic enmeshment to preserve strategic access, influence, denial, and warning across our increasingly congested approaches. For our neighbours, Canberra may nag and scold, but it doesn’t intimidate and coerce.

Karl Claxton is an analyst at ASPI. Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at ASPI and editor of The Strategist. Image credit: ASPI.