The international reaction -- and especially the US' -- to the West Papua riot might influence Pacific geopolitics by potentially pushing Indonesia to choose a side in the New Cold War.

Protests riots West Papua Aug 2019
The eastern Indonesian region of West Papua was rocked by a riot in its capital city of Manokwari on Monday that resulted in the torching of the local parliament and was sparked by reports that the authorities used disproportionate force over the weekend when responding to claims that students from that part of the country who are studying in East Java supposedly disrespected the national flag on Independence Day. The police are accused of using tear gas to clear out a dormitory full of students and then temporarily detaining 43 of them after humiliatingly forcing them to "squat and waddle across the ground" first, according to Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman as quoted by The Guardian. She also said that racist chants and death threats were shouted against the students at that time too, which naturally inflamed the restive residents of West Papua who have long complained of continuous human rights abuses against them ever since their controversial incorporation into Indonesia following a UN-backed vote by a little more than 1,000 locals hand-picked by Jakarta to participate (they unanimously agreed to it).

The mineral- and LNG-rich but sparsely populated jungled territory remains woefully underdeveloped to this day despite having the world's largest and second-largest gold and copper mines, respectively, thus feeding into a simmering separatist movement that carried out two high-profile attacks last summer in the run-up to local elections there. The author analyzed the significance of this event at that time in his piece about how "The Papua Attacks Prove That Insurgency Is Still Alive In Indonesia", which builds upon earlier analyses about Indonesia's Hybrid War vulnerabilities and its future role in the emerging Multipolar World Order. Judging by what just took place on Monday, anti-government sentiment is extremely high in the region and capable of spilling over into violence if the indigenous society there feels like their people are being collectively humiliated in front of the eyes of the entire country after the nationwide scandal that erupted over the weekend following the flag incident. About that, the Indonesia Expat online information outlet quoted police spokesperson Brig. Gen. Dedi Prasetyo as saying that the entire thing was based on a hoax and that the authorities are searching for the person who spread the initial reports on social media that ultimately led to the riot.

It's not clear from the article whether Brig. Gen. Dedi is implying that the police never detained the West Papuan students in the first place or that it's the reports about their alleged treatment that constitute the hoax, but whatever the case may be, Chief Security Minister Wiranto pledged to "conduct a complete and fair investigation against anyone who broke the law" in both East Java and West Papua. He also reassured the press that the situation was contained. In the same article, Reuters quoted Khofifah Indar Parawansa -- the Governor of East Java -- as apologizing for the racist behavior of some East Javans who reportedly called the West Papuan students "monkeys", saying that their actions "don't represent the voice" of the people in her region. It's therefore evident from the authorities' response that they're not resorting to their characteristically heavy-handed manner in dealing with disturbances in that conflict-prone region, possibly because of the fact that the West Papuan students' alleged treatment by police and the subsequent riot that it inspired in their home region have attracted such significant international attention.

In addition, it was only last week that the members of the Pacific Islands Forum released a communique demanding that the UN investigate reports of human rights violations in West Papua, which they all reaffirmed they recognize as part of Indonesia in spite of their serious concern over the situation there. Indonesia is very sensitive to any criticism of its activities in the region and is known to react very harshly whenever anyone questions their legitimacy, let alone the state's right to even be in control of West Papua, but the latest riot and the scandal that preceded it have suddenly thrust this situation into the global spotlight. The international reaction -- and especially the US' -- to what happened might influence Pacific geopolitics by potentially pushing Indonesia to choose a side in the New Cold War after it's been on the fence for a while now trying to "balance" between the US and China. The Pentagon's recently released "Indo-Pacific" Strategy Report makes it clear that "the United States supports Indonesia's vision to become a 'global maritime fulcrum'", but Jakarta has yet to indicate any desire to "contain" Beijing in the same way as New Delhi is trying to do at Washington's behest.

The scenario therefore arises where the US might consider putting "human rights" pressure on Indonesia in order to compel it to more decisively pivot towards the West and contribute more to the "Indo-Pacific" strategy of "containing" China. This doesn't necessarily mean that the US will publicly criticize the authorities in order to do so, but that it could threaten as much behind the scenes if Indonesia doesn't move more rapidly in the direction that the US envisions for it, namely in serving not so much as the "global maritime fulcrum" but as one of the most important pieces of the "containment" chessboard that could possibly cut off China's access to the Afro-Asian ("Indian") Ocean in the event of a conflict. Indonesia knows that the US wields considerable international influence and could make West Papua a soft power problem for it if it wants to by encouraging its partners to follow suit with similar possible criticisms, but at the same time, that strategy might backfire because Jakarta can be assured of Beijing's unwavering support in defending its territorial integrity by whatever means it thinks is suitable. If the US tries to instrumentalize the West Papua issue, it might therefore lose influence in Indonesia and lead to the collapse of its anti-Chinese "containment" efforts in the "Indo-Pacific".