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The Backyard: An Australian neo-colonial position serving US imperialism

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Australia has maintained a neo-colonial relationship with Papua New Guinea since independence in the mid-1970s; economic interests merged with defence and security considerations. In recent times, however, the foreign policy and diplomatic relationship has become strained.

United States-led military assessments about increased Chinese influence in PNG have raised concerns in Canberra about Australian defence and security planning. The response from Canberra has been both revealing and predictable.

The Australian colonial administration took control of what eventually became PNG after the First World War with the collapse of German imperial control of some of the landmass. Following significant battles across PNG during the Second World War, Australia took more time in the three decades following 1945 to develop the country for its huge mineral deposits. Australian-based mining companies seized the opportunity to exploit PNG for huge profits. Following a relatively peaceful transition to independence, Australian-based business interests remained powerful players behind the scenes in Parliament House, Port Moresby.

Independence, for PNG, was only ever a political strategy drawn up inside the higher levels of the British Commonwealth. In reality, PNG politicians had little say in major economic considerations of their newly independent country, which was destined to be part of the Australian 'backyard'.

The economic model those concerned foisted upon PNG included a dynamic mining sector of the economy, supposed to finance the economic development of the whole country. In reality, the model was never implemented; the mining companies acted like a financial siphon; profits generated on international markets were never returned to PNG. Rather, they were deposited in shareholders' bank accounts in foreign capitals across the world. It would be impossible to calculate the total wealth siphoned out of PNG since independence; Papua New Guineans have seen little benefit from the massive exploitation of their country which has given rise to numerous grievances.

The environmental damage caused by large-scale mining was also a major problem for local people living by traditional subsistence agriculture. Erosion of soil, together with polluted rivers, have left lasting damage upon the country and traditional village life-styles.

In the face of grievances, Australian diplomatic involvement with PNG, similar to much of the Pacific region, has been criticised for two main reasons: Australia's 'influence has diminished' largely due to a failure to 'develop a sufficient cadre of diplomats and others with knowledge of and networks in the islands region, including PNG'. (1) Secondly, concerns raised in PNG and elsewhere in the region about Australian aid money, which, 'goes back to Australia in expatriate wages and fees', has been accompanied in PNG with an 'animosity and anger about being lectured to', by Australians. (2) Many PNG decision-makers regard also Australian aid programs and government officials, 'as paternalistic'. (3)  

In recent times the PNG government of Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, has courted the support of China to assist with economic development planning, which has included large-scale infrastructure projects together with business deals. It has had serious implications with PNG-Australia diplomatic relations for two reasons: Australian aid programs rarely, if ever, had involvement with infrastructure, road and transportation systems. In fact, Australian neo-colonial control of PNG relied upon extremely limited transportation between towns and cities as a means of restricting access for the local population. Secondly, Chinese involvement in PNG has been regarded as symptomatic of a changing balance of forces across the wider region, of which there appears no sign of abatement. In fact, the changing balance of forces would appear to be accelerating.    

Last June O'Neill took a delegation of about a hundred people, including nineteen government officials and fifty PNG-based Chinese business-people, to Beijing for high-level diplomatic talks which were regared as highly productive. (4) PNG government official media releases have openly stated they favour support from China as it is, 'more effective', and, 'unconditional with no strings attached'. (5)

PNG Foreign Minister, Rimbink Pato, likewise, has stated the country, 'saw Chinese aid in a positive light'. (6) He also added that the rise of China and subsequent changing balance of forces across the wider region had enabled China to resume 'its status as a great global nation', and, 'now it is able to assist others, it is doing so – a response to prosperity that must be admired by all'. (7)

China, likewise, has regarded its increased diplomatic links with PNG highly; an official media release from Chinese Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, during the PNG delegation visit in June, stated, relations between the two countries were 'a model'. (8) The high-level diplomacy between PNG and China, nevertheless, has been viewed from Canberra with strong misgivings.

Every move, by China, to use diplomacy to enhance mutually beneficial trade is met with a US-led military assessment with the specific intention of establishing a threat to traditional hegemonic positions, whether in PNG or across the wider region. Their standpoint has remained the belief, 'Chinese commercial investment in the region disguises long-term strategic ambitions. (9) It is not difficult to establish why the US-led assessments regard PNG as so sensitive.

Following the Second World War, Australian defence and security planning rested upon the Defence of Australia doctrine; a military plan which saw possible threats to sovereignty coming from the north. The Melanesian countries of PNG, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu were therefore used a buffer-states, front-line type military positions, to safeguard Australia. Much of Australian aid toward the three countries has had underlying military planning as part of the agenda. Increased Chinese influence in PNG, now, however, has raised serious questions for Canberra. An official media release from Canberra, noted, PNG, 'is our nearest neighbour and remains central to our security interests'. (10)

The release was accompanied by a further media statement which noted, 'intelligence and analysis agencies believe that the South Pacific now presents the greatest strategic threat to Australia, as a result of what they believe is Beijing's intention to establish a military base in the region'. (11)

In April unconfirmed reports stated China was intending building a military base in Vanuatu. (12) Following a flurry of diplomatic activity, between Australia, the British Commonwealth, the US and Vanuatu, no further information was forthcoming. Later, in August, however, news from PNG about possible plans to build a multi-use port on Manus Island together with three other ports across the country, in Wewak, Kekori, Vanimo, raised serious fears in Canberra. It was considered 'highly likely' the bill would be 'at least partly footed by China'. (13) The moves follow the redevelopment of port facilities in Lae, the second biggest city in the country, by China Harbour Engineering, which were financed with a loan from the Asian Development Bank. (14)  

The Manus Island location has been regarded by Australia, however as, 'the most strategically significant of the four because of its sweeping command of the Pacific Ocean and the maritime approaches from Asia'. (15) Another media release, likewise, announced, 'the revelation that plans by PNG to build a port on Manus Island could see China gain a foothold there is disturbing', as an opening paragraph. (16)   

There was no reference in any Australian media outlet the ports concerned formed part of economic development planning for trade.

The response from Canberra was shrouded in secrecy, although a report in the Weekend Australian noted there had been, 'negotiation of a joint naval base in PNG', and the Coalition government had, 'commissioned a A$5 million contract for the upgrade by Fletcher Morobe Constructions at PNG's Lombrum naval base on Manus'. (17) It was also noted, 'a joint naval base at Manus would give the Australian navy a prime position to defend and protect vital sea routes that carry trade throughout the region'. (18)  

There is little doubt or ambiguity about the nature of the military planning which has accompanied the moves or their specific intention; it was further noted, 'Australia is working on plans with PNG to develop a joint naval base on Manus Island, edging out Chinese interest in the strategically vital port with a new facility that would be capable of hosting Australian and US warships'. (19) A further media release specified the intention of military planners was to increase, 'the US military presence in the country to boost security in Asia-Pacific waters'. (20)  

No reference was given to forthcoming military exercises, or the planned 'real war' scenarios.

The grander military planning has also not been confined to naval and maritime issues. A media release issued via the ANU's National Security College drew attention to the strategic significance of the Momote airfield on Manus Island, which, 'would be a valuable base for Australian and allied maritime surveillance aircraft'. (21) The release also drew attention to US-led military planning regarding, 'Manus as a forward operating base', from where the planned facilities, 'would help give the US wider operating and support footprint in the Pacific'. (22)

Moves such as this, by US-led military planners have created a wave of militarism sweeping the Asia-Pacific region. It is important for progressive forces in Australia to listen carefully to the peoples of the wider region and establish political alliances. A recent statement from University of PNG academic Patrick Kaiku, for example, has provided an important message; he has warned 'Australia conveys a patronising image of the Pacific when citing the China threat. Labelling the islands as our patch or sphere of influence is an unproductive message'. (23)

We require an independent foreign policy as a matter of the utmost urgency as US-led military tensions across the region escalate into the hands of war-mongers.

1.     Beijing Knows No Bounds,
        The Australian, 19 July 2018.

2.     PNG favours China's 'more flexible' support,
        The Australian, 12 June 2018.

3.     Amber alert issued on PNG aid,
       The Australian, 13 June 2018.

4.     Australian, op.cit., 19 July 2018.

5.     Australian, op.cit., 12 June 2018.

6.     Australian, op.cit., 13 June 2018.

7.     Ibid.

8.     Xi invites Pacific friends to talks,
        The Australian, 11 June 2018.

9.     US warns on China's debt-trap diplomacy,
        The Australian, 4 October 2018.

10.   Editorial, Australia goes back to the future in the South Pacific,
        The Weekend Australian, 22-23 September 2018.

11.   Top threat now lies in the Pacific,
        The Weekend Australian, 22-23 September 2018.

12.   Vanuatu wharf the ideal destination for a friendly naval visit,
        The Weekend Australian, 14-15 April 2018, and,
        US probes military base claim,
        The Australian, 12 April 2018.

13.   PNG port plan stokes China fears,
        The Australian, 28 August 2018.

14.   China casts a spell on PNG,
        The Australian, 20 September 2018.   

15.   Move to head of China with Aussie base in PNG,
        The Australian, 20 September 2018.

16.   Benefits for all in Manus being a base for US and Australian forces,
        The Australian, 29 September 2018.

17.   Weekend Australian, op.cit., 22/23 September 2018.

18.   Ibid.

19.   Australian, op.cit., 20 September 2018.

20.   Australian, op.cit., 4 October 2018.

21.   Australian, op.cit., 29 August 2018.

22.   Ibid, and,
        Bid to head of China with Aussie naval base in PNG,
        The Australian, 20 September 2018.

23.   Australian, op.cit., 20 September 2018.


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