June 18, 2015 12:00 am JST

Indonesia seeks South Pacific clout

SADACHIKA WATANABE, Nikkei staff writer

JAKARTA -- Indonesia recently blew up a Chinese boat it said was illegally fishing in its territorial waters. The country's president, Joko Widodo, is strengthening control of marine resources and checking the moves of powerful neighbors to the north and south -- specifically China and Australia.

     "It would be great if the sunken boat becomes a good residence for fish," Susi Pudjiastuti, maritime affairs and fisheries minister, said May 20. She explained the seized Chinese vessel had been blown up and sunk with a weak charge of explosives.

     Pudjiastuti said the Chinese boat was one of 41 impounded foreign vessels that were sent to the bottom. Indonesia has sunk foreign ships before, but this was the first from China.

     Widodo, meanwhile, has also moved to partner with South Pacific countries that are tightening relations with China and Australia, such as Papua New Guinea.

     The president wants to turn Indonesia into a global "maritime axis."

Big ambitions

Widodo's administration is expanding port infrastructure and navigation routes in order to link the country's islands -- which dot an expanse of ocean some 5,000km from east to west -- with foreign industry.

     Indonesia has not taken sides in South China Sea territorial disputes between China and some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Instead, it has sought to mediate, in part out of a desire to maintain healthy relations with China, its largest trading partner.

     That same desire may explain why Indonesia did not previously target Chinese boats. But Widodo's government has shown of late that it is not afraid to assert itself.   

     The Widodo administration this year upheld death sentences for 12 foreigners accused of drug crimes, citing Indonesia's right to enforce its laws. Two Australians were among those executed. The prisoners were killed despite calls for restraint from the United Nations and the Australian government, which recalled its ambassador to Indonesia in response.

     Nevertheless, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, on the day of the executions, said it was important to maintain relations at the heads-of-state level. 

     China was similarly muted after the sinking. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing expressed "grave concerns" on May 21, the day after the boat was sunk. But on May 27, Vice Premier Liu Yandong met Widodo in Jakarta and confirmed stronger ties in such areas as infrastructure development.

Sweet spot

Indonesia's location ensures China and Australia will not rush to scuttle ties. The archipelago is positioned between China, which aims to expand its influence southward via various ASEAN states, and Australia, which hosts U.S. military and intelligence bases.

     In another effort to capitalize on Indonesia's geographic position, Widodo made his first trip to Papua New Guinea on May 11-12. He assured the neighboring country's prime minister, Peter O'Neill, that Indonesia is an ally. Furthermore, Widodo said his government is seeking Melanesian Spearhead Group membership. The organization includes Papua New Guinea and surrounding countries and territories. Indonesia has held observer status since 2011.

     In a speech in Sydney on May 14, O'Neill said Widodo's move marked "a new level of engagement and opportunity for economic and cultural relations with more than 11 million Melanesians in Indonesia."

     Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea. Indonesia occupies the western half. Like Australia, Papua New Guinea belongs to the Commonwealth of Nations. Most of its 7.5 million residents are Christians.

     The part controlled by Indonesia has one of the world's largest copper and gold mines, and is a key center for liquefied natural gas production. However, the majority of the 4 million people who live there are of indigenous Melanesian descent. With an independence movement smoldering, Indonesian leaders have been cautious about visiting Papua New Guinea. Suharto and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono each went only once.

     But Papua New Guinea is on the ascent. In 2014, the country began producing and exporting LNG. This year, its gross domestic product is expected to grow nearly 20%. A second LNG plant is to begin shipments around 2021.

     China and others are cozying up to the South Pacific nation, too. In Australia's budget for the fiscal year through June 2016, Papua New Guinea supplanted Indonesia as the top aid recipient.

     The battle for influence in the South Pacific has been rekindled. And unlike in the past, Indonesia and China are both in the mix.

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