Australian aid to PNG: neo-colonialism at the service of US imperialism
Demands have been made for Canberra to adopt a more formal neo-colonial approach in its aid program to Papua New Guinea.
US-led military planners have called for Australia to reassess the findings and recommendations of the 2016 White Paper for defence.
Aid program reviewed
Recent reviews of Australia's aid program toward PNG conducted by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) have drawn attention to what has been regarded as a deteriorating state of control from Port Moresby over parts of the country, due to weak governance, corruption and a decline in law and order. (1) The review also specified Australia's biggest foreign aid program was falling short of expectations: it noted 'restorative action' was regarded as necessary. (2)
PNG, for decades, has remained central to Australia's foreign policy, being strategically-placed in the South Pacific. The three Melanesian countries, PNG, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, have a prime position within US-led military and security provision for Australia.
Following its independence from the Australian colonial administration during the mid-1970s, PNG, for example, soon became a model of neo-colonialism. Sections of the economy rich in minerals and natural resources were closely linked to Australian-based mining companies. The naive reasoning foisted upon decision-makers in Parliament House in Port Moresby was that the economically-vibrant sectors would subsidise essential services for ordinary people. In reality, it never happened. The Australian-based corporate bodies acted like a siphon upon the PNG economy, draining it of as much wealth as was possible. The PNG economy was pillaged and plundered in the name of corporate profit, designed to keep shareholders happy.
The consequence was that life for most ordinary PNG people remained much the same as in the previous period. The legacy is a legitimacy crisis with institutions of state, which have not produced adequate or rising living standards. Most people live a subsistence life-style, where annual spending on health, for example, amounts to a mere $50 a head. Life expectancy is short, infant mortality rates are high. It has been estimated PNG will require an estimated $1 billion each year for the next decade to invest in basic education. (3)
A further problem which has arisen is the fact all the original political leaders who led the country to independence have now gone; in their place a new generation of decision-maker has emerged. The new rising class is well-aware of the legacy of the problems inherited from their forefathers and are anxious not to fall into the same culture of compliance created by Canberra. A recent study conducted by the Lowy Institute, for example, concluded that with the rise of China, the Pacific Islands have a 'broader choice of aid partners, they no longer need to depend upon Australia'. (4)
The development has had some far-reaching implications for Australia.
In recent times questions have arisen in US-led military and security circles about the significance of the rise of China, which has successfully altered the balance of forces across the wider region. While much of the political discourse has either been couched in US-style megaphone diplomacy and scaremongering or seemingly polite media releases, a recent statement issued by Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, that 'Defence had underestimated the speed at which the strategic outlook was changing across the Indo-Pacific', and, 'the world has changed more quickly than we assessed in 2016', left little to the imagination. (5)
Elsewhere, reliable source material has thrown light upon the changing balance of regional forces. A commission formed by US Congress to analyse US National Security thinking last year concluded that 'the US was no longer clearly superior to the threats it faces'. Furthermore, the commission drew attention to 'a combination of overly stretched budgets, underpaid forces and outdated thinking amongst war planners', which had already undercut 'America's ability to defeat China'. (6)
Moves appear to already be under-way in Canberra to reassess the regional situation.
The recent Pacific 2019, a three-day event in early October in Sydney, saw a wide range of research papers and various meetings attempt to deal with regional matters. The event enabled sixteen leading arms companies to showcase their wares to key national and international decision-makers. (7) Those in attendance had the opportunity of studying the latest technological developments from Leonardo, rated as a world leader in aerospace, defence and security. With its partnership with Geospatial Intelligence, they specialise in supplying satellite-based geo-information services. (8) Part of the same program also involved the Leonardo unmanned Falco Xplorer drone, with a military capability of flying for more than 24 hours, 'equipped with satellite communications for beyond-line-of-sight operations'. (9) No reference was provided about the national sovereignty of other countries, and whether they wanted US-led Australian-based surveillance equipment hovering over their territorial areas. Governments of compliant countries with US-led military and security provision, however, would be unlikely to openly acknowledge such flouting of diplomatic protocol.
Elsewhere, in official media releases reference to operations being smoothly co-ordinated 24/7 with 'huge data collected, fused, processed and disseminated to operators, analysts, decision-makers', provide a useful example of the legions of spooks attracted to such military-industrial bean-feasts, some real, others wannabes. (10)
The previous month the inaugural South Pacific Defence and Industry Forum met in Cairns, where an official media release noted, 'we discussed plans to work closely with our regional neighbours'. (11) Emphasis was placed, during the event, on Cairns being an ideal location for becoming an important port for northern Australia with already existing military facilities which included berthing facilities for nine naval vessels and 900 naval and civilian personnel.
The move also coincided with demands in Canberra to bring forward the timing of the next Defence White Paper from a planned 2021-23 period.
Manipulation of aid
Behind the scenes, however, other developments have also taken place, with some serious implications for usual decision-making processes within a seemingly independent country.
The recent DFAT review, for example, noted Australian aid programs had an over-reliance on technical advisers whose role was to build 'the capacity of government personnel and institutions'. (12) As it has been regarded as failing to achieve US-led military planning and objectives, another course of action has been proposed. The review recommended 'Australia should instead ramp up its support for progressive reformers to agitate for change in PNG'. (13) Canberra quite clearly regard it as appropriate to install and/or influence decision-makers in Port Moresby as part of Australia's aid program.
No reference was provided about the type of reformers regarded as suitable in PNG, or whose interests they would be serving.
The moves, however, coincided with an announcement from Canberra that the Defence Department was considering recruiting personnel from the Pacific region along the lines of ‘inviting Pacific Islanders into our military for a three- or four-year period'. (14) The fact that the proposal also drew attention to similar facilities already in existence in the US-led compliant Pacific Islands of the Marshall Islands, Palau and Micronesia, has shown the model favoured by certain people in Canberra toward the South Pacific. They clearly seek the establishment of passive, client-type states in the South Pacific: while nominally independent in the literal sense, they would in fact be tied closely to US-led Australian military and security provision and economic interests.
With developments such as these taking place in Australia, we need an independent foreign policy!
1. Call for more aid as PNG faces corruption crisis, Australian, 7 October 2019.
4. Cross Purposes: Why is Australia's Pacific Influence Waning? Jenny Hayward-Jones,
Quoted, Is this the end of a beautiful Pacific islands relationship? The Weekend Australian, 13-14 July 2019.
5. Out-of-date strategies in white paper, Australian, 8 October 2019.
6. Study: U.S. no longer dominant power in the Pacific, Paul D. Shinkman, Information Clearing House, 22 August 2019.
7. Pacific 2019, Maritime Defence Special Report, Australian, 8 October 2019.
8. Leonardo 'senses' maritime threats, ibid.
11. Queensland's plans can help start a (supply) chain reaction, ibid.
12. Australian, op.cit., 7 October 2019.
14. Pacific Islander boots would help defence step up, Australian, 3 September 2019.
The contributor is a former permanent resident of PNG, employed with an Australian aid program funded from Canberra. He writes in a personal capacity.