Uncertain future for Pacific grouping proposal

Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid has always focused on the big picture in foreign policy.

In one of his first comments after taking over office last year, he called for a Jakarta-Beijing-New Delhi axis. His latest proposal for a West Pacific Forum was similarly bold and unexpected.

While the immediate trigger for a pact involving Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, East Timor and Papua New Guinea was Asean’s cool response to it, the idea may have been at the back of the President’s mind for some time.

Diplomatic sources said that he first raised the idea of a “trilateral meeting” between Jakarta, Canberra and Dili when he met Australian Prime Minister John Howard at the United Nations Millennium Summit in September.

His public comments on the West Pacific Forum may seem to veer towards “the idea of solidarity and taking care of weaker neighbours”.

But the underlying reasons may be deeper than this or his unhappiness with Asean.

Senior Indonesian diplomats, who disclosed that they had not been briefed about the proposal, said that his main aim was to manage and contain an independent East Timor.

The umbilical cord to the one-time restive province that Indonesia controlled for nearly three decades could not be cut so easily.

Said an Indonesian foreign ministry official: “The President’s view is that East Timor should not be left out in the cold. He does not want Australia to be the only country deciding developments there.

“His preference was for Asean to rope in East Timor so that Indonesia, as one of the member states, could watch over it. “Having failed to secure this, he had to come up with this West Pacific Forum idea.”

The Indonesians have been growing edgy over East Timor these last few months, especially with the Australians pumping money into the territory.

Besides economic projects, Canberra is also said to have offered an initial A$15 million (S$14 million) to develop East Timor’s defence capability.

Australia therefore figures prominently in Mr Abdurrahman’s foreign policy calculus.

The pact would allow him not just to watch over East Timor, but also to keep tabs on Australian initiatives in the area. At a diplomatic level, the West Pacific Forum would allow Jakarta to mend fences with Canberra, following Australia’s high-profile role in restoring peace to East Timor after the former Indonesian province voted for independence last year. Indonesia needs to build bridges even more so now after fighting on so many fronts on the international scene.

It is instructive that the Islamic cleric dispatched Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab and other ministers to Australia to explore avenues of cooperation so soon after his blistering attack on Asean and Singapore.

Mr Alwi put forward the West Pacific Forum plan to Australia.

Canberra and Auckland said subsequently that they hoped to start drafting a framework for the new body early next year. Australia, in particular, would be keen on a regional dialogue and especially if it would pave the way for a thawing of ties with Indonesia.

Canberra is already involved in the South Pacific Forum, but having another one in its backyard, especially involving a giant neighbour in the form of Indonesia, is no disadvantage.

Both Australia and New Zealand have said that the forum would aim to strengthen trade and defence ties. But other than such a broad brush, no one – not even Indonesian officials – has a clue as to what the pact would entail other than who its members are.

Said an Australian diplomat: “We are still waiting for the Indonesians to flesh out details of the pact. The ball is really in their court. We are in a wait-and-see mode.”

Jakarta has yet to provide any information on the formal structure of the forum and what its function should be. Little is known about the level of representation, frequency of meetings, and whether there will be a secretariat for it. Australia and New Zealand might have adopted the diplomatically-correct approach in backing Indonesia’s idea.

But some diplomats have privately questioned whether the forum can work as an economic grouping, given the diverse economies of the potential members.

Strategically, however, there might be some hope among the key players that the forum could act as a potential counterweight to China.

For East Timor, Asean continues to be primus inter pares. East Timor Foreign Minister Ramos Horta noted as much when he said this week in Singapore that Dili would participate in the West Pacific Forum if it were set up but did not want to pass up the opportunity to be an Asean member.

No real support for the forum plus pressing domestic concerns at home next year may mean that Mr Abdurrahman’s proposal may not see light at the end of the day.

Observers doubt whether he will have the time or energy to see through the birth of a new multi-lateral framework, given his domestic political troubles.

The world still waits with bated breath for Indonesia to team up with China and India in a grand coalition to counter the West.

That too was part of Mr Abdurrahman’s big picture foreign policy for Indonesia. But there was no follow-up. Could the West Pacific Forum suffer a similar fate?

Posted in Indonesia