Australia’s close bonds with Papua New Guinea can help build a stronger nation
9 Jan 2023|

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is heading to Papua New Guinea this week for an annual leaders’ dialogue—his first overseas trip for 2023, and the first time an Australian prime minister has visited PNG since 2018 (due more to political turmoil there and the Covid-19 pandemic than to anything else). Albanese and PNG Prime Minister James Marape are no strangers—they met several times last year—and the Australian government is describing this trip as one to reinforce the strong bond between the two countries.

The relationship between Australia and PNG is a unique one. PNG is Australia’s nearest neighbour, with less than four kilometres separating the countries at their closest point. Historically, the two countries have been strongly linked—from traditional trade across the Torres Strait through to colonial rule and then independence. Now, they have a deep diaspora connection and maintain shared values and close ties.

In 2019, then–prime minister Scott Morrison and Marape announced ‘the beginning of a new chapter’ in the bilateral relationship and committed to boosting engagement in security, trade and investment, governance and development. An enhanced comprehensive strategic and economic partnership agreement was signed in 2020. Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles visited PNG in October, elevating already significant defence cooperation and pursuing a bilateral security treaty, which is being negotiated.

Australia’s relationship with PNG is in a very strong position. We’re already ‘family’. But to keep it that way, we have to stick around and be supportive. Strengthened ties should be balanced with effective development. What comes out of these meetings—for trade, the economy, infrastructure, defence and security, and climate change—should build on Australia’s commitment to foster PNG’s resilience, support its key areas of concern, and strengthen mutual friendship, trust and capabilities.

Australia provides more aid to PNG than to anywhere else in the Pacific. Because of the size of its population, that has always made sense. And late last year, a UN study suggested that PNG’s population could be as high as 17 million, nearly double the government’s estimate of 9 million. Marape admitted that he doesn’t know the exact size, and PNG is ill-equipped to deal with its population regardless of how many millions more there may be. Marape’s dreams of PNG becoming ‘the richest black Christian nation in the world’ are far from becoming a reality, and he recognises that.

PNG’s 20-year development strategic plan seeks, among other things, human development—through education, health care, economic opportunity and increased service delivery to rural areas, all of which Australia is supporting. And, importantly, PNG’s development goals seek to enhance national sovereignty and self-reliance. So, Australia’s responsibility is as much about building national resilience, government functions and a strong economy as it is about direct aid.

Yet Australia’s national and regional security concerns, while they impact PNG, are not always synonymous with the major security issues PNG faces day to day. Through its defence cooperation program, Australia assists the Papua New Guinea Defence Force, training its personnel, funding its infrastructure and supporting its ability to provide capabilities such as maritime domain awareness and border security. Further flashy offerings—like air capabilities—while nice additions for PNG’s security, don’t target the ongoing internal security needs of the country. And although the Australian Federal Police’s work with the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary bolsters its capability and capacity, that alone doesn’t tackle the growing list of security issues.

Tribal warfare, land disputes, forced migration, gender-based and domestic violence, and sorcery-related violence all contribute to a deeply unstable security environment and stifle PNG’s development. These security issues have probably been exacerbated by population growth. Increasingly disruptive climate impacts may also have contributed, and these problems we be more difficult to resolve as climate change intensifies in the years to come. There’s no immediate solution to these issues, and PNG has to be at the forefront of addressing them. Australia’s focus should be on building the country’s sovereign capacity to deal with these issues as self-sufficiently as possible.

We almost can’t talk about the Pacific without referencing the geostrategic competition in the region. China’s presence in the Pacific, and particularly in the security domain—historically dominated by Australia, New Zealand, the US and France—causes the heart rates of Pacific partners to rise every few weeks. Pacific islands’ autonomy and receptivity is often overlooked in the face of China’s gifts and economic prowess. But, if the West is in a battle against China for influence in the Pacific, we have no greater stronghold than PNG.

Australia’s very public status as PNG’s key security partner, and the deep ties on all levels of the two countries’ engagement, doesn’t preclude China from engaging—and nor should we expect it to. Marape has made it clear that he doesn’t want to take sides, and his country needs trade with China to sustain its economy and development assistance to sustain its booming population.

But Australia’s engagement does help PNG to feel secure that it has what it needs, which makes it confident to only take what it wants from China, whether it be aid, development assistance, trade or sometimes security infrastructure and equipment. And PNG has so far proven that it knows how to accept what it wants while maintaining its sovereign ability to make its own decisions in its national interest. PNG doesn’t need, or indeed want, deep security ties with China—due probably in large part to Australia’s cooperation and partnership. And the security engagement it does have with China—equipment donations and subpar infrastructure—don’t make for a lasting relationship.

Albanese’s trip should focus on PNG’s priorities for its development, through the economy and service delivery. Australia should focus on building PNG’s capacity and resilience—for its internal security challenges, its development goals and its response to climate change impacts. Deeper defence cooperation, and a furthering of the move towards a bilateral security agreement, should also be priorities—as our nations’ strategic security is intrinsically linked.

Australia’s strong ties with PNG are important. But, in the long run, dependency won’t support PNG’s development. Australia has a fine line to walk between helping and hindering, and it must make PNG part of the solution instead of dragging it along for the ride. The prime minister’s trip should aim to keep our friend close and help it soar.