The new treaty to be signed between Australia and Indonesia next Monday reads like an Indonesian wish-list, to which Australia has dutifully complied. Each of the main components of the treaty is in Indonesia’s interests, but apart from helping to secure a fragile friendship, it appears less favourable to Australia.

The decision to assist Indonesia with building a nuclear power plant complies with the Australian government’s thinly-veiled push to develop a domestic nuclear power industry and helps secure another nuclear customer for uranium exports. There is no doubt that Indonesia is struggling with energy production, especially since it became a net oil importer in early 2005.

Yet a similar proposal for Indonesia to develop a nuclear power plant was scrapped in the mid 1990s because of Indonesia’s infamously unstable geology. In short, its regular earthquakes could create a nuclear meltdown which would not only affect tens of millions of Indonesians but would have serious implications for the region, including Australia.

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There is little likelihood that Indonesia would go the further step of developing nuclear weapons, although some of Indonesia’s more rabid nationalists would see this as a reasonable extension of the country’s regional assertion. Such technology could also fall into the hands of religious extremists whose agenda concerns power more than energy.

Other elements of the treaty concern security, specifically closer military to military links, joint maritime border patrols and suppression of West Papuan separatism activists.

While joint military links are of concern, given the slow pace of Indonesian military reform, they fit US strategic preferences. US President George W Bush will visit Indonesia soon after the signing of the treaty.

Of particular concern, however, is the reported agreement to suppress activists. Indonesia has brutally suppressed West Papuan activism for decades, and abrogated its own “special autonomy” law for West Papua. But concern over such issues has remained a legitimate part of free speech in Australia. It appears this will now change.

Apart from the basic principle of free speech, human rights activists are frequently misrepresented as supporting Papuan independence, the most recent example of which was the Lowy Institute paper “Pitfalls of Papua”. That paper’s misrepresentation of individuals named within it is especially dangerous as its author, Rod McGibbon, is about to assume a senior role with Australia’s peak intelligence body, the Office of National Assessments. The treaty includes closer intelligence ties between Australia and Indonesia.

No doubt there will be many in Jakarta who are pleased with the outcome of this treaty. But one is left wondering what Australia gains from it, and how much it may cost.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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