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Papua New Guinea assessing options as regional tensions grow

Written by: (Contributed) on 11 December 2019


An increased aid budget from Canberra to PNG together with a further loan, has highlighted the continued importance of the South Pacific country for Australia.

In recent years, however, the neo-colonial relationship has become tense and problematic; Canberra can no longer take their hold over PNG for granted.

Behind the scenes two discussions taking place in military circles reveal the heightened importance of PNG for regional defence and security considerations.
In late November the Morrison Coalition government in Canberra made an additional loan to the Marape government in Port Moresby of $442 million, the details of which were not divulged by Australia. (1) It is also important to note the loan was heavily discounted at only 2.5 per cent and the terms did not include information about when it was expected to be repaid or whether it was subject to other conditions. 
 
The loan was also accompanied by an increased aid budget:
                                                      
2018-19  $578 million
                                               
2019-20  $512.3 million
                                                      
2019-20  $607.5 million (total). (2)
 
The moves followed an official five-day state visit to Australia by incoming PNG Prime Minister James Marape and several cabinet ministers last July where agenda items for high-level diplomatic discussions included trade and investment and defence and security. (3)
 
Behind the bonhomie and affable discourse, serious diplomatic problems have arisen in recent years between the two countries. PNG, a country hugely rich in mineral resources and raw materials, has remained desperately poor for the mass of the population with large divisions between those who are regarded as well-to-do and the estimated eighty per cent of the population who remain poor with few opportunities. Planned electrification of the country has a stated goal of providing only seventy per cent of the population with access to electrical supplies even by 2030. At present, only an estimated thirteen per cent of the population, have ready access to electricity. (4)
 
Since independence in 1975, however, Australian-based mining companies in the country have kept their shareholders content with large returns. The neo-colonial relations foisted upon PNG by the Australian colonial administration, since the mid-1970s, have acted like a siphon: wealth has been extracted and ordinary people have seen little or no real benefit for their peoples. A new generation of PNG’s political leaders are now, however, not as keen to pursue traditional neo-colonial policies without questioning other options opened to them with closer links to China; they are aware of alternatives.
 
Marape government agenda and options
 
The election of Marape earlier in the year is perhaps a good example of the recent historical development; soon after taking office he pledged his administration to a tougher stance toward energy and mining companies exploiting PNG. He was quoted as warning PNG did not want to be known as just 'an oil and gas country', and that he was also campaigning for foreign-based companies to pay their fair share of tax. (5) The more assertive stance taken by the PNG government has created further implications for Australian foreign policy toward the South Pacific. 
 
Resting upon economic considerations favourable to Australia lie military and security considerations. Australian military planning has argued for decades that PNG is a defence and security buffer to repel possible incursions and threats to sovereignty from the north. PNG, therefore, while having its own defence forces and intelligence services, has relied heavily upon Canberra for increased provision. The provision has then rested upon bigger US-led regional provision, which rely upon intelligence facilities at Pine Gap, Central Australia as part of a global-wide network.
 
In recent times, however, US-led foreign policy toward the region has been shaken out of neo-colonial arrogance and complacency with the rapid rise of China, which is now regarded as a threat to traditional positions of domination and control. It is interesting to note, therefore, how US-led regional considerations have been played-out recently with PNG; the country is not in an economically healthy position. Following an announcement that the Marape government was considering a move to re-finance the entire national $1.8 billion public debt with a loan from China, the administration turned to Canberra with a request for $1.5 billion loan. (6)  
 
While the Marape administration secured only $442 million from Canberra the fact the negotiated amount has remained subject to a refusal by the Morrison government to provide details has revealed the tense nature of the diplomacy between Australia and PNG. Whether the smaller loan is part of a longer-term bigger package has yet to be established. The move was also a departure from existing diplomatic relations where Canberra had continued to refuse any budget support loans to PNG for the past two decades. (7) It tends to reveal how important PNG has remained to the US-led regional position with Australia.
 
US imperialism’s military planning

The recent high-level diplomacy between Australia and PNG has been accompanied with numerous references to US-led regional military planning.
It is, therefore, quite common to find references to real-war scenarios in ordinary defence media releases; they do not hide their aggressive military posturing. A recent release from the US-led RAND-Australia noted, for example, 'we must be prepared for high-intensity conflict in our region'. (8) The stream of assessments also includes a preoccupation with range and capacity of military facilities and adequate basing agreements; both considerations are linked.
A major discussion concerning whether the ADF should purchase B-21 Raider bombers for air-born attacks has been linked to 'long range strike capacity', as opposed to relying upon other aircraft. (9) The same media releases also identify China's artificially-created islands built on the Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands) as 'a prime target for future long-range strikes'. (10)
 
The island masses in the South China Seas have become a focal point for US-led military exercises in the region; in late November US navy ships sailed near the islands on two occasions, raising diplomatic tensions between the US and China. (11) To date, however, Australia has been reluctant to follow the US naval manoeuvring in the South China Seas. Canberra, nevertheless, has followed US military planning in other regards.
 
A further statement from Canberra about the matter included reference to 'Australia's strategic space as some countries develop military bases there, including the South China Sea within reach of northern Australia'. (12) The same statement also included a further reference to 'planning for the defence of Australia, and for operations in our region of primary strategic concern'. (13) And it is perhaps there that the significance of recent high-level diplomacy between Australia and PNG rests.
 
US-led moves last year to re-establish a working military base at the Lombrum facilities on Manus Island are now well under-way. They have been conducted with some considerable secrecy, although various media releases have concentrated upon the introduction of higher-level military technology and intelligence facilities. The ADF have recently been 'devising a strategy to develop hi-tech soldiers and weaponised robots under a new program to modernise levels of protection and lethality for front-line troops', with specific reference to 'communications and battle-management systems'. (14) A recent statement from Canberra, likewise, made reference to the 'many ways to project military force at a distance including...proper basing agreements'. (15)
 
It has also been noted in other media releases that the Lombrum facilities are situated near to the Momote airfield which 'would be a valuable base for Australian and allied maritime surveillance aircraft', with 'Manus as a forward operating base'. (16)
 
The US-led planning for the Lombrum base would appear far more important than a relatively small military facility in the South Pacific; taking an arc from Pine Gap to the Lombrum facilities and then using it to project the range has revealed it swings through the South China Seas and also Guam, a further sensitive US basing agreement in Micronesia. (17) US-led facilities based on Guam have also been upgraded in recent times to become a hub for military operations and also eventually form part of 'a region-wide missile-defence system' which include a range to 'cover all of North Korea, but also to peer deeper into China'. (18)
 
It is also interesting to note the Lombrum military facilities lie on a tangent 15 degrees east from Pine Gap, with the South China Seas lying 15 degrees west, revealing other aspects of the US-led military planning including the range of the area of surveillance.
 
As the present US-led Cold War has heightened tensions across the region we should be distancing ourselves from possible, and indeed likely, real-war scenarios:
 
We need an independent foreign policy!
 
1.     Details of $442m PNG loan to remain secret, Australian, 28 November 2019; and, PNG exploited China fear for $442m bailout, The Weekend Australian, 30 November – 1 December 2019.
2.     Development Assistance PNG, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Canberra.
3.     PNG leader to visit Australia, Reuters, 16 July 2019.
4.     'We will work with Beijing in Pacific', Australian, 25 October 2019.
5.     PNG seeking better Oil Search gas deal, The Weekend Australian, 27-28 July 2019.
6.     Weekend Australian, op.cit., 30 November – 1 December 2019; and, PNG asks Australia for $1.5 bn., ABC News, 19 August 2019.
7.     Australian, op.cit., 28 November 2019.
8.     Stealth bomber is handy, but it may not be the perfect fit, Australian, 22 November 2019.
9.     Ibid.
10.   Ibid.
11.   US navy sail-pasts infuriate Beijing, The Weekend Australian, 23-24 November 2019.
12.   Our strategic risks are changing and so must our defence thinking, Australian, 26 November 2019.
13.   Ibid.
14.   ADF aims to wage robo war, Australian, 27 November 2019.
15.   Australian, op.cit., 22 November 2019.
16.   Benefits for all in Manus being a base for US and Australian forces, Australian, 29 August 2018.
17.   Philips Projection, Actual Size World Map.
18.   U.S. seeks new Asia defences, The Wall Street Journal, 24-26 August 2012.

 

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