Australia should seek a trilateral partnership with Indonesia and PNG
13 Jun 2024|

With relations between Australia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea (PNG) strong, the time is right for Australia to advocate for a high-level Australia–Indonesia–PNG trilateral strategic partnership.

Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper identified the Pacific and Southeast Asia as Australia’s second strategic defence interest, behind a secure and resilient Australia itself. Geography makes Indonesia and PNG the most important neighbours to Australia. They (and East Timor) are the closest. They also stand between Australia and China. At the same time, Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest country, and PNG is the largest Pacific Island nation.

While the strengthening of the set of three bilateral ties is welcome, a trilateral arrangement would be even better. Through it, the three countries could collectively address shared challenges. Achieving this would certainly be in Australia’s interest.

As part of such an arrangement, annual trilateral leaders’ and ministerial-level summits should be held. The partnership should also reaffirm the territorial sovereignty of all three countries, including unwavering support for freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific, and reinforce the need for the peaceful resolution of regional maritime disputes in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The partners could focus on areas of shared interests and concerns and promote cooperation in traditional security issues such as border security, maritime security, defence infrastructure development, and policing. For instance, they could together increase their maritime security capabilities by running regular maritime patrols, holding annual joint military exercises and training, and sharing critical information about maritime safety.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing continues to pose a direct threat to all three neighbours’ maritime resources and borders. For example, PNG is losing 1 billion kina (US$260 million) annually due to IUU fishing, while Indonesia’s losses are US$23 billion a year. Meanwhile, Australia has the world’s third-largest exclusive economic zone and is therefore wary of the growing IUU fishing threat. In the trilateral partnership, an Australia–Indonesia–PNG hotline could be established to prevent illegal vessels from sailing from one country’s territorial waters to another’s.

The partnership should also collaborate on non-traditional security areas such as climate change, critical infrastructure, cybersecurity, health security, disaster risk reduction and transnational crime. Climate change, in particular, remains a major environmental security threat for Indonesia, Australia and PNG. Through the trilateral partnership, the neighbours could deepen their climate cooperation and strengthen the climate adaptation and infrastructure capacities of each of them.

Despite Indonesia’s and PNG’s geostrategic importance, Australia’s 2023 Defence Strategic Review failed to mention them. Canberra has deepened its two bilateral security relationships with them but has made scant efforts to advance a trilateral partnership.

In 2020, Canberra and Port Moresby elevated their relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP), and last year the two countries signed a historic security agreement. Since 2020, through the Lombrum Joint Initiative, Australia has also been supporting PNG in its efforts to redevelop the Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island, north of the mainland. Last year, Australia gave four Guardian-class patrol boats to PNG, helping it to guard territorial waters from transnational crime and IUU fishing.

With Indonesia, Australia shares the world’s longest maritime boundary. The two countries upgraded their strategic ties to a CSP in 2018. In recent years, the bilateral relationship has been further boosted by the graduation of Indonesian military cadets for the first time from the Royal Australian Military College, Duntroon. The two neighbours are also planning to sign a new treaty-level defence cooperation agreement this year. In the Australia–Indonesia CSP, they committed to working together in the Pacific in trilateral cooperation with an unnamed third country from the Pacific.

Indonesia–PNG relations improved in 2023 when they ratified an agreement governing their border, which is sometimes crossed by insurgents opposed to Indonesian possession of West Papua. PNG unequivocally recognises Indonesia’s sovereignty over West Papua.

This year Jakarta and Port Moresby ratified and expanded their defence cooperation agreement. PNG hopes that the new deal will expand bilateral security cooperation in the areas of ‘joint border patrols, and military exercises’.

Ultimately, amid growing unpredictability in the Indo-Pacific, a solid Australia–Indonesia–PNG trilateral partnership would contribute to greater stability in Australia’s immediate region.