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Papua New Guinea amid US-China Rivalry

Written by: (Contributed) on 20 February 2021


Concerns, raised by the Morrison Coalition government in Canberra, about China's increased involvement in Papua New Guinea have raised two considerations:

• the importance of PNG as a strategic country and neo-colonial partner in the South Pacific, closely linked to the military and security planning of the northern approaches to Australia, and its national sovereignty;

• the wider implications of the US and allies to deal with China in the Indo-Pacific region.

During the past year three large-scale economic development projects sponsored by China in PNG have raised serious concerns from the Morrison Coalition government. The first, a $39 billion New Daru City with a major sea-port, industrial park and free trade zone on the southern coast of PNG, was met with scepticism from Canberra. (1) The second, a $200 million fisheries industrial park in PNG's Western Province was met with a similar response. (2) The third, a massive $2.6 billion hydro-electric plant for power generation met with an official diplomatic response from Canberra that 'PNG is pursuing the project against the wishes of the Australian government'. (3)

All three projects present a direct challenge to the neo-colonial relations which have marked relations between PNG and Australia for generations. Despite achieving independence during the mid-1970s, PNG has never really achieved sovereign control of their massive mineral deposits which have been pillaged and plundered largely by Australian-registered mining companies. While shareholders have received huge dividends, life for the vast majority of the people of PNG remains based in subsistence agriculture and poverty.

Life expectancy in the country of just under nine million population remains at 64 years, while over a third exist below the poverty line. Infant mortality rates remain at nearly 39 deaths per thousand live births. Educational opportunities are extremely limited for most of the population, with less than two-thirds of the adult population being literate.

Australia, historically, has allocated a large part of its aid budget to PNG, although with few tangible success stories. It has been noted PNG already owes Australia $558 million in previously allocated 'aid' budgets which have failed to facilitate meaningful economic development. The present Marape government in Port Moresby is also requesting a further $400 million to 'shore up the country's battered finances'. (4)  

Part of a previous Australian aid allocation to PNG included the provision of $2.9 million to each of the country's 111 M.P.s to provide 'local service improvements'; Australian aid budgets are usually concerned with maintaining compliance from decision-makers in PNG, to safeguard existing neo-colonial relations. (5) It should be noted local services, for a large section of PNG’s population, remain virtually non-existent.

Australian diplomacy toward PNG has tended to be big on ideas with little, if anything, in meaningful and practical outcome. At the 2018 APEC summit in Port Moresby, for example, Australia, together with the US, Japan and New Zealand, promised to begin electrification of the country and provide internet services to at least 70 per cent of the population. To date, however, the only initiative has been the announcement of a $250 million solar power project, the work on which has not even commenced. Whole areas of the country remain without electric power, which effectively hampers any economic development and hinders local services.

In recent years, however, China's increased involvement in PNG has dislodged some of the neo-colonial relations, raising defence and security considerations in Canberra. The Australian Defence Forces have always retained a strong foothold inside their PNG counterpart’s military organisation; the fact Australia followed a US-led initiative to re-develop the Lombrum base on Manus Island is evidence of the close working relations, allegedly designed to provide a buffer against military incursions from the north into Australian sovereignty, but really to assist with US and Australian projections of military force into the region to the north.

Elsewhere, in the vast Indo-Pacific region, US-led forces have acknowledged a changing balance of forces.

The Pentagon preoccupation with Island Chain Theory, used to block access to areas of the region considered sensitive, uses the main first chain from southern Japan, through the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Philippines together with a link to Vietnam; China has already broken through the chain and established a presence in Oceania. (6)

The recent disclosures from US joint military chiefs’ chairman Mark Milley that 'Uncle Sam had lost assured command of the Western Pacific' and that 'China was now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the US', for example, has revealed the extent of the changing balance of regional forces away from traditional US-led hegemonic positions. (7)

The US clearly fears a similar scenario occurring in the South Pacific; the Pentagon has therefore thrust greater responsibilities upon the Morrison Coalition government in Canberra to deal with the perceived problem. The fact the development has coincided with an official Pentagon media release stating a nuclear war with China has 'become a very real possibility' has revealed just how far diplomatic tensions have soared in recent years. (8)

With developments such as these taking place we need an independent foreign policy!

1.     PM sceptical of PNG city plan, The Weekend Australian, 6-7 February 2021.
2.     China dangles $39 bn carrot to build city on our doorstep, Australian, 5 February 2021.
3.     Warnings over PNG's Chinese hydro project, The Weekend Australian, 13-14 February 2021.
4.     Ibid.
5.     Ibid.
6.     Defend the First Island Chain, US Naval Institute, April 2014.
7.     US losing control of Pacific to Beijing, The Weekend Australian, 5-6 December 2020.
8.     Nuclear war real possibility: US chief, Australian, 5 February 2021.  


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