Author: Aiden Riley, ANU

In West Papua separatist sentiment has failed to disappear after decades. While Australia remains involved with its twin Papua New Guinea, the culturally and ethnically similar West Papua has endured continual neglect, corruption and human rights abuses. Demands for independence are continually repressed by Indonesia. How should Australia as both a key player in the region and with storied history on the island of New Guinea respond?

Australia is opposed to West Papuan Independence because of its interest in the preservation of Indonesia. Ethnically and linguistically diverse, Indonesia has persisted under the perennial fear of disintegration. West Papua is not alone in its independence aspirations, with other similar movements spread across the archipelago, but the Indonesian government has so far successfully suppressed such efforts.

Indonesia is most concerned about the potential ripple effects of a single successful independence movement anywhere in the country. The possibility of an Indonesian ‘domino effect’ where one successful independence movement leads to another is the single greatest political fear for Indonesia as it could lead to the country’s disintegration. 

The implications for regional stability will also affect Australia’s national interests. Such a movement could turn what is currently a cooperative and key regional partner into many conflicting, disparate and misaligned actors. With more actors comes more agendas and aims, adding more complex and contradictory variables to the diplomatic calculus. Further, these fragmented actors will become vulnerable to foreign influence on a scale where Australia lacks resources to respond effectively. This is particularly concerning given the rise of China’s influence in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. While Australia can form productive partnerships with a unified Indonesia, its deterioration undermines Australia’s diplomatic effectiveness and will potentially mean the creation of uncooperative or hostile regimes on Australia’s doorstep.

The case of East Timor demonstrates the dangers of partition. China is now developing influence in the country that Australia may have difficulties competing with admittedly due partially to its own troubled relationship with Timor-Leste. It seems hard to imagine that the same would be occurring if the island had remained under Indonesian sovereignty.

Australia supporting an independent West Papua will lead to the alienation of Indonesia. If the movement were to be successful, it would mean a splintered and vulnerable nation in a time where Chinese influence is on the rise.

So, what benefit would there be in an independent West Papua?

There may come a time when Australia’s confidence in a united Indonesia falters, and influencing part of a nation with greater certainty is better than hesitancy with a whole one. Australia’s influence would be magnified given West Papua’s size and development with which Australia could gain a range of economic and defensive benefits, from mines to ports.

Australia also continues to damage its relations with Melanesia over the issue of climate change, leaving a hole in its moral reputation in the Pacific. Support of an Independent West Papua would go a long way to improving this reputation, as seen already in Melanesia’s active support of the issue. It would act as a legitimising piece for an Australian centred Pacific order.

But the reality of such a state would not be pretty. Much like its independent twin next door, an independent Papua would likely be plagued by an absence of the infrastructure and institutions necessary to reliably govern itself. Into this vacuum will seep not only deep economic and security issues, but also leaves open the question of who ought to take care of it. A dependent West Papua gives external actors the opportunity of influence, and the interests of whoever steps into the vacuum may not be aligned with those of Australia.

Australia will therefore need to be committed to West Papua in the event of independence and its associated costs. It seems a risky investment at best, and it will come at the tremendous cost of severely damaged ties with Indonesia.

Australia’s prospective support only seems plausible with two assumptions in place. First, a more desperate situation in West Papua than currently exists. Second, a decisive Australian strategy, whether to join in a broad Asia Pacific cooperation, or retreat behind a Pacific sphere of influence.

So, what is the best approach as things stand? It should be to help Indonesia help itself. West Papua as is it right now only presents disadvantages to Australia. Indonesia is doing little to help the situation, with its current policies inflaming the region to a heightened state of unrest which only stokes further separatism and insults Melanesian nations looking to Australia.

Australia ought to address Indonesia’s policies themselves, in protecting Papuan indigenous and human rights and advancing development. This would deliver it two boons — needed moral respect from Melanesia, and soothed separatist sentiment in West Papua. Overcoming Indonesian scepticism of Australian involvement in their internal affairs remains the biggest diplomatic obstacle, but worth the trouble given the potential future costs to Australia.

Aidan Riley is a Bachelor of Philosophy student at the Australian National University.