JAKARTA: Indonesia has launched an international aid agency to strengthen its diplomatic relations in the region, but played down the role of Papua-related diplomacy in the fund.
The establishment of the Indonesian Agency for International Development (AID) last Friday (Oct 18) came amid international criticism towards Jakarta’s approach in the restive Papua region, which has seen widespread violence since August.
Government watchdogs have said the fund could be useful to win over countries sympathetic towards West Papuan independence.
However, Mr Cecep Herawan, the Foreign Ministry's director-general for information and public diplomacy, denied that the agency was introduced to dampen international criticism against Indonesia’s rule over Papua.
“The agency has nothing to do with Papua,” he said in a presser on Monday (Oct 21).
The idea to form a dedicated agency to provide aid to other countries was first conceived in 2016, Mr Herawan said, long before the widespread unrest this year sparked renewed calls for independence in Papua.
The protests were ignited by a video showing civilians and military officers taunting Papuan students with racist remarks in Java in August.
Indigenous Melanesians are the predominant inhabitants of Papua, which Indonesia officially annexed as it's easternmost province in 1969.
READ: Protests in Indonesia's Papua spotlight demand for independence referendum
Jakarta’s crackdown on the pro-independence protesters have prompted several Pacific nations to call for investigations into allegations of violence by security forces in Papua during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York last month.
On Monday, Mr Herawan confirmed that Pacific countries will be given priority over other countries in terms of distribution of AID funds, but stressed that the decision has no connection to Papua.
It is part of Indonesia’s strategy to bring countries in the Indo-Pacific region closer together, he explained.
"A PRECIOUS TOOL FOR INDONESIAN DIPLOMACY"
Speaking to reporters during Indonesian AID’s launching ceremony on Friday, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said the agency “is a very precious tool for Indonesian diplomacy (that we can use) to strengthen our presence on the international stage.”
On Monday, Mr Herawan stressed that one of the agency’s main objectives is to beef up Indonesia’s clout in the international diplomatic circle.
“With the formation of this agency, we want all of our donations and assistance to other countries to be in line with our foreign policies and politics. I’m sure it is the same case with all countries,” he said.
Indonesian ministries and agencies have been giving grants and technical assistance to their foreign counterparts independently.
Beginning next year - when the agency begins managing the 4 trillion rupiah (US$283 million) endowment fund the central government currently sets aside - all foreign aid projects, technical cooperation and disaster relief programmes will be under the control of the Foreign Ministry.
“All will be centralised. The Foreign Ministry will have a bigger role in determining where aid should be distributed to. So everything will have synergy and thus Indonesia’s diplomatic posture will be further strengthened,” Mr Herawan said.
Indonesia hopes to set aside 10 trillion rupiah in endowment fund for Indonesia AID to manage and distribute at least US$42 million to needy nations every year.
Mr Herawan said the formation of the agency reflects Indonesia’s projections that it could be the world’s fifth largest economy by 2030.
But Indonesia still has 9.8 per cent of its 270 million population living below the US$1.90 per day poverty line set by the World Bank.
Indonesia itself still receives hundreds of millions of dollars in development assistance from countries like Japan, China, the United States and Singapore as well as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
MORE THAN JUST BOOSTING INDONESIA'S CLOUT: ACADEMIC
Since 2015, Indonesia has been giving aid and grants to Pacific countries when the pro-Papuan independence group, the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), applied for membership with inter-governmental organisations Melanesian Spearhead Group and the Pacific Islands Forum.
This year, Indonesia has pledged aid to seven countries, five of which were Pacific countries - Nauru, Tuvalu, Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Fiji.
Given the timing of the aid agency's formation and its focus on Pacific countries, Mr Andreas Harsono, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “It is difficult to say that it was not built to win the hearts of Pacific countries, which have been critical towards the human rights violations in Papua.”
Nonetheless, Mr Harsono pointed out that three countries which have received aid from Indonesia - Solomon Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu - were among the Pacific nations speaking out against the situation in Papua at last month's UNGA.
He said people in the Pacific countries, who have started to become aware of the violence, racism and environmental destruction in Papua, were putting pressure on their respective governments to act.
“Even if Indonesia can lobby Pacific countries, these countries would also need to appease their own people,” he told CNA.
“We shall see how effective the new agency will be in advancing Indonesia’s political agenda,” he added.
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Professor Hikmahanto Juwana, an international relations expert from University of Indonesia, disagreed.
“If you look at China, they have been successful in using their international aid programmes to rally other countries to support their political agendas and foreign policy. Indonesia is a long way from reaching China’s level of success but it has to start somewhere,” he told CNA.
“Of course there will be controversies domestically if Pacific countries receive funds from Indonesia, but if Indonesia can develop programmes which would truly benefit people in that country, the controversies would die down.”
Prof Juwana said China and India were also aid donors while still receiving aid in the past.
The advantage of providing aid to foreign countries is more than boosting Indonesia’s profile and clout, he opined.
“Indonesia could also make sure that Indonesian contractors are involved in the international development programmes, or have the foreign countries use products manufactured in Indonesia, to provide Indonesian companies with a new market," he said.