SYDNEY (Reuters) – Indonesian president Joko Widodo told Australia’s parliament on Monday that he wanted to work with the traditional Pacific power to expand influence in the region in the face of China’s stepped-up efforts to do the same.
Aligning with Australia and not its giant Asian neighbor is a major step for Indonesia, which is the second-most populous country in the region and has been trying to provide aid and build alliances with smaller Pacific countries.
Indonesia last year said it would establish diplomatic relations with several Pacific island nations, pursue trade deals with Fiji and Papua New Guinea and create a 3 trillion rupiah ($219.06 million) fund to provide development aid or disaster relief to smaller countries.
The country wants a larger role, Widodo said, as the Pacific increasingly becomes the focus of diplomacy, aid and military investment by Western powers trying to counter China.
“Indonesia and Australia must become the anchors for developing partners in the Pacific region. Indonesia understands the development challenges,” Widodo said in his speech.
Widodo said Indonesia and Australia are both grappling with climate change and natural disasters, giving them common ground with small Pacific nations.
The low-lying Pacific islands are on the front lines of global climate change, threatened by rising sea levels that have forced some residents to move to higher ground.
Many Pacific countries have turned to China for financing, a relationship that Western officials fear Beijing can exploit.
Australia, which historically has carried considerable influence in the Pacific, has in the last couple of years rapidly expanded its diplomatic presence and aid to the region in response.
China says it is simply trying to help smaller Pacific countries with economic development.
Several Pacific nations have backed calls for investigations into allegations of violence by security forces in Indonesia’s easternmost region, Papua. Vanuatu has openly voiced support for the independence of the former Dutch colony Papua.
A separatist movement has simmered in Papua since it was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 in a widely criticized U.N.-backed referendum. There has been a spike in violence since August, with demands for a new independence vote.
Reporting by Colin Packham. Editing by Gerry Doyle