Amanda Hodge – Indonesia has asked Australia to caution its Pacific Island neighbours against interfering in the West Papua issue and to urge them to withdraw support for West Papuan membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, warning that the issue could pose a "stumbling block" to closer bilateral ties.
Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu told The Australian yesterday he made the request to Australia's defence and foreign ministers during their annual meeting in Bali last week and "the response has been good. It is unlikely they will refuse".
"I have told Australia... we should maintain our close relationship and not let issues like this be a stumbling block to our relationship," he said.
At Friday's ministerial meeting, Australia and Indonesia also agreed to consider joint patrols of areas of the contested South China Sea and pirate-infested Sulu Sea between Indonesia and The Philippines. That will likely be discussed further when Indonesian President Joko Widodo makes his first official state visit to Australia on Sunday.
General Ryamizard's decision to publicly raise the West Papua issue appears designed to pressure Canberra into adopting a stronger public defence of Indonesia's position.
The bid for West Papuan membership of MSG, likely to be decided by year-end, has become a rallying point for the Free West Papua movement, which argues that the territory's UN-supervised vote to stay with Indonesia in 1968 was secured by cheating and military intimidation.
Indonesia is an MSG associate but is lobbying hard against Papuan admission since the United Liberation Movement of West Papua gained observer status last year.
The group's chairman, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, champions West Papuan representation. He was one of seven Pacific leaders to speak out against human rights abuses in the Papua provinces and to support self-determination at last month's UN General Assembly.
After the ministerial meeting on Friday, General Ryamizard said: "I have told Australia we never interfere with the internal affairs of any other country and we will strongly object if other countries do so to us.
"So please tell Solomon Island and those six nations (from the MSG) never to interfere or encourage West Papua to join them.
"Those countries better keep their mouths shut and mind their own business. It is better that (Australia) speaks to them gently. If it was left up to me, I would twist their ears."
John Blaxland, of ANU"s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, said Canberra would have little choice but to speak to the Solomons (which gets $162 million Australian aid this year) and "remind them of which side their bread is buttered".
However, the Indonesian minister's public statements were "extremely unhelpful" because they brought the issue into the open, which was wanted only by pro-independence activists. Dr Blaxland, said it was "completely toxic for Australia".
"The restoration of the bilateral security relationship is predicated on us being supportive over West Papua and the Indonesians are acutely sensitive to Australia's role in that.
"We can't afford for West Papua to sour relations between Australia and Indonesia when there are so many other issues on the agenda dependant on us maintaining an even keel in that relationship," he added.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop yesterday confirmed West Papua was discussed at last week's meeting but would not say whether Australia would pass on Indonesia's message to Pacific Island nations.