The Prime Minister’s quick visit to Papua New Guinea this week focused on the asylum-seeker issue, but also has some wider security implications.
Although Mr Rudd enjoys good personal relations with Sir Michael Somare, PM Peter O’Neill has a commanding grip on national politics, with most PNG MPs currently behind him, and a different style and priorities. Most younger PNG leaders share O’Neil’s single-minded, unsentimental, focus on PNG’s national interest—witness his decision to travel to Jakarta rather than Noumea when the MSG Leaders Summit was due to consider West Papuan membership last month. (And, indeed, his willingness to go along with the idea that asylum seekers heading this way represent a security problem for the whole region). This forward-looking outlook may assist productive, businesslike ties relatively free of decolonisation-era baggage, but also means we can’t rely so much on a special relationship, with the PNG Government assessing its options on their merits in a more competitive international environment.
Mr Rudd’s investment of a day-and-a-half in making the trip should then be applauded (PNG was also among his earliest visits during his first term as PM). And he went to Moresby prepared to offer major concessions to O’Neill’s three priorities for the relationship: re-establishing an AFP presence in key centres; focusing AusAID support even more on Moresby’s four priority ‘pillars’ of health, education, infrastructure, and law and justice; and introducing symbolic measures to reduce irritation with our stringent visa requirements. That’s generated some concerns that the asylum-seeker issue could distort our approaches to other areas of substance such as economic governance or two-way trade. Yet PNG’s importance to Australia on the asylum-seeker issue could actually help advance our shared security interests by reinforcing a sense of partnership.
While the Australian military presence in the immediate neighbourhood is expanding, the police regional footprint has been shrinking in some areas. The AFP’s International Deployment Group, funded for up to 1,200 staff after August 2006, is down to 680 personnel. This is mainly due to success in drawing down big missions such as RAMSI but’s also due to internal priorities following the end of the ‘9/11 decade’. Rudd committed to deploy an initial 50 Australian police in Moresby and Lae by the end of the year in ‘visible roles’ (ie community policing, subject to agreement of mutually acceptable legal immunities—which should be easier with PNG ministers genuinely on-side than it was when the ECP was ruled unconstitutional in 2005). This builds on the recently-announced roll-out of the third phase of the 23 person Australia–PNG Police Partnership, although that initiative contained almost no increased resources.
Domestic and transnational challenges in law and order usually present a more immediate security threat to PNG than external aggression—harming investment, reducing personal security (particularly for women), and impacting our strong stake in PNG’s stability and prosperity. O’Neill recently stated crime was such a threat to the liberty and safety of Papua New Guineans, visitors and investors that, if nothing was done, no-one will even consider looking at operating there beyond big resource players. The PNG Government has long aspired to increase the PNGDF from 2,000 to 10,000. But while it probably should expand the force a bit, it’s hard to see how it requires so many troops, or even 5,000 as recently announced, when it desperately needs 10,000 well-trained police. The seriousness with which the PNG Government and people view criminal threats, the magnitude of that crime, and potential impacts on Australia suggest that any contribution to mentoring and revitalising the Royal PNG Constabulary, like our renewed commitment to PNG policing might make, will serve both countries.
Coming just two months after Julia Gillard signed a Defence Cooperation Arrangement in Port Moresby, and unaccompanied by his Defence Minister or Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, it’s unlikely Rudd devoted much time to considering enhance military ties. However, his planned visit to Port Moresby General Hospital was reportedly scuttled after a group of troops attacked staff following an altercation between medical students and an intoxicated off-duty soldier—highlighting that PNGDF discipline, although improving, still has a way to go. It remains in Australia’s interest to continue to improve the force’s professionalism, maximise the degree to which it’s a strategic asset rather than a liability for PNG, and make it an effective regional partner for the ADF (as it was in RAMSI).
The Australian PM would have been briefed on Pacific Partnership, a humanitarian assistance/disaster relief exercise that concluded a week ago in East Sepik and Sandaun Provinces, involving ADF, PNGDF, US, NZ, Japanese and Canadian troops this year—pointing to growing international interest in the region’s strategic significance.
Finally, Mr Rudd would have been updated on preparations to introduce the Pacific Maritime Security Program, which he announced as chair of the Pacific Forum in August 2009, and which will replace four Pacific patrol boats in PNG (and 18 vessels in 10 other countries). The replacement program is due to start before 2018, but isn’t fully funded yet. While supporting the Pacific patrol boats is one of Navy’s least glamorous roles, it’s also one of its most crucial—building regional capabilities to police a vast area we’d otherwise have to monitor ourselves, while promoting the continuing acceptance of the ADF’s permanent strategic presence, situational awareness, and influence across our maritime approaches.
Karl Claxton is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Christopher.Michel.