Papua New Guinea embroiled in US-China rivalry
Recent decisions by Canberra to strengthen the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) have potentially far-reaching implications for the peoples of the country.
It will have a divisive influence: the US-led military planning has run counter to recent political initiatives within PNG for closer diplomatic links with China.
While ostensibly concerned with the external threat posed by China, the military planning also has implications for internal defence and security provision in PNG, a country where deep ethnic divisions are commonplace.
A recent announcement that the Australian government was funding an upgrade of the PNG military facilities at Lombrum Base on Manus Island has remained shrouded in secrecy. Eventually, information was reluctantly released following much lobbying from journalists. A terse media release from the Defence Department subsequently provided information about a $2 million Australian defence budget allocation to establish a communications centre at Lombrum to enhance 'existing security cooperation' between the Australian Defence Forces and their PNG counterparts. (1)
Far from funding an 'upgrade' to Lombrum, however, the Australian government appears to have far grander military obectives which include 'planning to build a new naval base'. (2) Information provided from reliable sources also included Australian military planning for a'deep water port'. (3) The developments would appear to rest upon a recently published military paper calling for a fleet of nuclear-powered fast attack submarines to counter 'faster, quieter boats being developed by rising powers such as China'. (4)
PNG has formed part of Australian military and security planning since the end of the Second World War with the Defence of Australia doctrine: an attack on Australia was assessed as likely to come from the north, the countries of Melanesia were therefore to act as a buffer to repel adversaries. For seventy years, PNG, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu have remained close to Australian military planning, with PNG regarded as the most important of the three: Australian involvement with defence and security considerations with PNG is the largest of any country. (5) The diplomacy, however, is not conducted as amongst social equals. In fact, despite an official diplomatic statement to a 'mutually beneficial defence relationship', a recent Australian diplomatic statement from Port Moresby actually referred to 'our security', with reference to PNG. (6)
The military links between Australia and the Melanesian countries form only part of the equation: the relationship was, and remains, based on colonial and later neo-colonial ties. Successive Australian governments from the pre-independence days of the colonial administration to the present neo-colonial relations have not been generous, sincere or straightforward.
Control from Canberra has been both a means and an end in itself: in 1960, GDP growth rates were 6.2 per cent, they fell to 0.9 per cent with independence in 1975. (7) The Australian colonial administration, far from preparing PNG for self-government, had created a subservient country, dependent upon its former colonial master for further support and expertise: the economic base of the country had been drained.
Subsequent Australian governments and their development programs, likewise, have not enabled PNG to gain sufficient power to stand-alone from Canberra; even by 2016 after more than forty years of so-called independence, PNG could only manage 2.4 per cent GDP growth rates. (8) The relations between Australia and PNG have altered little since independence: economic exploitation has also merged with military and security considerations.
Elsewhere, in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, a similar pattern of exploitation took place.
The 22nd PNG-Australia Ministerial Forum in 2013, for example, noted in official communiques that 'Minsters agreed to expand the relationship to one of economic and strategic partnership', with a'focus on expanding trade and investment ties', to enhance 'security cooperation'. (9)
The ordinary peoples of PNG have seen little benefit from the neo-colonial relationship thrust upon their country by a business agenda from Canberra. About forty per cent of the population of PNG live in officially recognised poverty, with many others only a little better off. (10) Infant mortality, a good indicator of general female health and living conditions with hospital and health-care access, has remained at 45 per thousand live births, placing PNG among one of the poorest countries. (11)
The rapid rise of China, however, has been particularly strongly noticeable in the South Pacific. It had led to a situation whereby 'there is now a consensus among the leaders of our intelligence agencies that Australia's strategic outlook is more uncertain than at any time since 1942, when Australians feared military invasion by Japan'. (12) A recent report by Retired Rear-Admiral Peter Briggs, for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, likewise, also drew attention to what was regarded as 'a deteriorating strategic environment'. (13) Many of the intelligence assessments conducted by Australia have concentrated upon ethnic Chinese minorities and their role in the South Pacific.
The Melanesian countries of the South Pacific have had Chinese ethnic groups since the nineteenth century; for generations they have been part of a localised business culture. In recent times many have become more strongly linked to China through business and trade and have formed an important part of the dialogue through which Chinese diplomacy has taken place in the region. It is, therefore, not surprising recent high-level diplomatic talks between PNG and China included among the hundred strong delegation from PNG about fifty local Chinese business-people. (14)
The recent high-level diplomacy also rested upon previous Chinese initiatives; in the period 2006-16, China invested $854.4 million in 27 projects across PNG. (15)
While Australia has tended to monitor Chinese involvement in PNG closely, diplomacy between Canberra and Beijing historically has been conducted on relatively favourable terms. With the strong emphasis upon the US-Australia alliance and the present Trump administration, however, diplomacy has now become tense and even hostile as the new Cold War takes shape across the wider region. There has been little ambiguity with Australian far-right political figures slavishly following the US-led political line laid down by the Trump administration. A recent media release from Senator Concetta Fieravanti-Wells, in Canberra, for example, openly accused China of using 'Port Moresby' as a 'conduit for Beijing's outreach', and that 'this should be of serious concern to us'. (16)
The recent military planning for the Lombrum base, therefore, would appear part of a later US-led initiative. The caution with which Canberra has dealt with the matter is perhaps best explained by official military consultation procedures with the Pentagon.
The Lombrum military facilities would appear, however, to form part of US-led military planning through the alliance with Australia to establish 'a combat support brigade responsible for reconnaissance and intelligence and target selection' where, 'the primary responsibility was to protect Australia' in a regional situation 'to secure the nation's interests away from the geographical landmass'. (17)
A small media release in October dealt with the bigger picture surrounding the Lombrum military facilities. An announcement that 'the Australian government plans to increase cooperation with both the PNGDF and PNG Department of Defence in the decade ahead' has shown Canberra has every intention of drawing PNG closer, despite political initiatives in PNG to establish stronger diplomatic links with China. (18)
Apparently, an Australia-PNG Defence Cooperation program conference in September in Adelaide also included discussion about re-organising the PNGDF into a separate army, navy and air force from 2025. (19) Planning for the PNGDF has also included the expansion of forces from the present 4,000 to over double, and 10,000 troops by 2030. (20)
Two considerations have arisen: US-led military planning has every intention of militarising PNG as part of regional defence and security provision using Australia as a hub. Secondly, in a society as ethnically diverse as PNG the likelihood of military intervention into civil political affairs is a very great danger. The political institutions of state remain weak when confronted with ethnic conflict. PNG has already experienced internal military problems with both Bougainville and the Sandline affair. The latter included a full-scale military revolt which toppled a democratically-elected government in Port Moresby and bitterly divided the country. Australian involvement with the Sandline affair was also never straightforward: corporate interests hired mercenaries and used Australian port facilities to attempt to ship armaments to those wanting to re-open the Bougainville mine. A repeat of these tragedies must be avoided.
Australia requires an independent foreign policy, free from the interference of the US.
1. Website: Australia further strengthening regional maritime security, Australian Government, Department of Defence, 22 September 2018; and, Australia starting upgrade, NAVALTODAY.COM
2. Australia eyes PNG military base, news.com.au, 21 September 2018.
3. NAVALTODAY.COM, op.cit.
4. 'Nuclear subs key' to stay ahead of rivals, Australian, 16 October 2018.
5. Website: Section 28, PNG-Australia Ministerial Forum, 11 December 2013.
6. Website: Section 26, PNG-Australia Ministerial Forum, ibid., 11 December 2013; and,
Website: PNG-Australia Defence Cooperation Program, Australian High Commission, PNG.
7. GDP Growth, PNG, World Bank.
9. Section 3, PNG-Australia Ministerial Forum, ibid., 11 December 2013.
10. On the frontline in PNG, Australian, 16 October 2018.
12. Intelligence expands to take on China and the new world order, The Weekend Australian, 13-14 October 2018.
13. Australian, op.cit., 16 October 2018.
14. PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill visit Beijing, ABC News, 20 June 2018.
16. Bellicose China Is Popping Up Everywhere, Australian, 5 October 2018.
17. Army overhaul gets under way, Australian, 22 September 2018.
18. Bigger PNG military part of talks over Manus Island base, Australian, 15 October 2018.