Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was busy improving bilateral relations with more than one neighbour last week. Incredibly, for two countries that share an island and a difficult border, President Yudhoyono was the first Indonesian President to visit PNG since President Soeharto in 1979.
Making up for lost time, the two governments signed a Defence Cooperation Agreement, a Double Taxation Agreement and letters of exchange on agriculture cooperation. They also agreed to open an official border crossing at Sokau-Wutung. And, according to media reports in PNG, Indonesia has agreed to train PNG police to prevent transnational terrorism, money laundering and people smuggling.
PNG's Post Courier newspaper has suggested that Indonesia's improved relations with Australia paves the way for new forms of trilateral cooperation between PNG, Australia and Indonesia. Whether or not this eventuates, PNG stands to benefit from a more mature bilateral relationship with Indonesia. The focus on economic as well as security cooperation evident in President Yudhoyono's visit is a positive development for the Pacific Islands region's most populous country.
The situation in West Papua was apparently not on the agenda, despite the efforts of Port Moresby's Governor, Powes Parkop, to present a petition to the Indonesian President calling for greater Papuan autonomy. The PNG Government will not have missed President Yudhoyono's warnings to the Australian parliament about respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.
This will no doubt be disappointing to Vanuatu, West Papua's most vocal supporter in the Pacific Islands region. PNG's desire to enhance and protect its relationship with Indonesia seems certain to continue to trump Vanuatu's efforts to use the Melanesian Spearhead Group to promote the West Papuan cause