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Understanding Australia’s position on West Papua

Australia has long struggled to balance its relationship with Indonesia and its responsibilities as a Pacific Islands nation. While it has so far managed to walk the tightrope, recent developments in West Papua could reveal that this balancing act is increasingly unsustainable. 

Australia-Indonesia Relations

Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is central to its defence and diplomacy in the region. The two countries have consistently re-affirmed the necessity of this relationship, most recently with a new defence cooperation agreement (DCA) signed in early 2018 and a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership signed in late 2018. 

Despite this, the two countries have frequently come to the brink of diplomatic crisis, particularly when Australia has been perceived to challenge Indonesia’s sovereignty. A key example of this is the East Timor crisis. Indonesia invaded and annexed East Timor in 1975 and forcibly took control of the country until an independence referendum was held in 1999. This referendum resulted in an overwhelming vote for independence after which the province almost immediately descended into mass violence and conflict between rebel groups and the Indonesian military. Under the direction of the UN, Australia led a multinational force of peacekeepers, known as the International Force East Timor (INTERFET), in the country to stabilise the situation. Despite officially inviting the intervention force, many in Indonesia perceived this as a challenge to its sovereignty by Australia and diplomatic relations broke down between the two countries. Diplomatic relations were only stabilised again with the signing of a new security agreement, the Lombok Treaty in 2006.

What is the West Papua Issue? 

Similar to East Timor, the situation in West Papua has the potential to disrupt Indonesia-Australia relations. 

Originally under the control of the Dutch in the early 1940s, Indonesia annexed West Papua in 1963 and has maintained a strongly disputed rule over the region since. West Papuans strongly reject Indonesia’s governance and the region’s calls for independence are gaining momentum. 

In January 2019, around 1.8 million people (around 70% of the Indigenous population in West Papua) signed a petition to call for another independence referendum. This was then presented by Benny Wenda, a key leader in the West Papuan independence movement, to Michelle Bachelet, the UN Human Rights Commissioner. 

Further, violent protests in West Papua are rising, including recent mass demonstrations in August, during which protestors forcibly removed the Indonesian flag outside the Papuan Provincial Governor’s office and set fire to public buildings. 

Along with the cries for independence, pushback from the Indonesian forces in West Papua is likewise intensifying. In just one example, by some estimates, the Indonesian response to a West Papuan attack on a construction site in December 2018 resulted in over 100 dead and 34,000 people displaced from the area. Beyond this, human rights abuses are also rising. In December 2018, the Indonesian government was accused of using white phosphorous on civilians in West Papua. While this claim has been vehemently denied by the Indonesian authorities, it is representative of a concerning decrease in relations in the region. 

Australia: Caught in the Middle of Indonesia and the Pacific

The worsening situation in West Papua has gained the attention of the surrounding Pacific Islands nations. Championed by ni-Vanuatu, it was given top priority at the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) held in Tuvalu. The PIF released a communique that has strongly encouraged Indonesia to finalise a deadline for its invitation to the UN Human Rights Commissioner to visit West Papua. The PIF has set the deadline for the next forum in 2020. The added deadline marks a change in the usual rhetoric surrounding West Papua and shows a regional recognition of both the worsening situation and the growing legitimacy of West Papuan claims for independence.

This shift in regional consciousness around West Papua proves a potential problem for Australia. Australia's ability to act on the issue of West Papua without threatening ties with its Indonesian partner is limited. The breakdown in relations after the East Timor intervention serves as a cautionary tale about the potential impact of Australian intervention in Indonesian affairs. 

Indeed, this principle of non-interference is enshrined in the Lombok Treaty, the pillar of Indonesian-Australia relations. Article 2.3 of the Lombok Treaty explicitly states both countries shall not ‘support or participate in activities by any person or entity which constitutes a threat to the stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of the other party’.

This article has been perceived as preventing Australia from acting on West Papua and turning it into an into ‘an ally in an undeclared war against the West Papuan people’. 

Australia’s lack of action on West Papua is putting it at odds with the rest of the region. Indeed, Australia was the only Pacific nation that voted against the inclusion of West Papua on the PIF agenda. The region is further calling for Australian action, with Benny Wenda stating that ‘Australia has big a responsibility’ towards West Papua. 

With growing regional discontent with Australia over its policies towards climate change, Australia’s stance on West Papua risks further estranging itself from the region. Given the power struggle occurring in the Pacific between Australia and China, this is not the time for Australia to be losing regional support and connections. This could potentially force Australia to make a choice: is the stability of the Indonesia relationship worth more than Australia’s image in the Pacific?

Sarah Wilson is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. 


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