Where does Australia's relationship with PNG go next? Less talk about China, more about our neighbour's own merits

Prime Minister's Office/PR Handout Image
Prime Minister's Office/PR Handout Image

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s visit to Papua New Guinea last week put the media spotlight on one of Australia’s most important international relationships.

Much of the coverage focused on the plans, confirmed by Albanese and his PNG counterpart, James Marape, for a defence treaty between the two countries – and the role this might play in warding off China’s growing engagement in the region.

But PNG should not just be seen as important because of China, or the prospect that Australia’s position may be subject to challenge. The relationship deserves focus because of its own intrinsic challenges and opportunities.

Spectators hold Chinese flags at a ceremony to mark the opening of a major road project funded and built by China in PNG’s capital. Mark Schiefelbein/AP
Spectators hold Chinese flags at a ceremony to mark the opening of a major road project funded and built by China in PNG’s capital. Mark Schiefelbein/AP

A land of opportunity

PNG is not just Australia’s nearest neighbour – its coastline is a scant four kilometres from the nearest Queensland island. It’s also the largest Pacific country by far. The official census figure of more than nine million is almost double the size of New Zealand, and if the true figure is closer to 17 million as the UN has recently estimated, PNG’s population appears set to outgrow Australia within the next decade or so.

PNG is already an influential partner for Australia when it comes to Pacific affairs, and its size and growing confidence will see it exert a stronger regional leadership role in the future.

PNG is also a land of considerable economic opportunity. While foreign investment flows are still directed mainly to petroleum, gold and copper, the country may also be an important source of iron, nickel, cobalt and rare earth elements required to drive the post-carbon global economy.

It is also attracting strong interest as a potential source of renewable energy for both domestic and export purposes. PNG’s fisheries wealth is extraordinary, as is its agricultural potential.

In addition, Papua New Guineans are keen to provide their services to help address gaps in our labour force, so Australia’s undertaking to improve the accessibility of visa services is important to both sides.

Given all this, the focus should very much be on opportunity as we look to the next phase in the Australia-PNG relationship. It’s certainly high time we moved on from the dominant narrative about PNG as a needy recipient of Australian aid – and little else.

Yes, Australia’s aid dollars remain important as PNG struggles with major development challenges across health, education, governance and law and order. But Canberra’s assistance program is not really that large relative to the size of PNG’s own national budget. And there is little precedent for foreign aid alone in bringing about economic transformation for a sovereign, developing country.

As a former Australian high commissioner to PNG, I know from experience that PNG’s leaders are often left feeling mystified and somewhat offended when Australian visitors speak about feeling “responsible” for the state of things in their country.

How security ties will change moving forward

A comprehensive defence treaty is the logical next step in the evolution of the links between the two nations. It reflects the commitment of the two leaders to project the relationship as one of “equals”. It also supports the growing sense PNG is a vital strategic partner to Australia in the Pacific. After all, PNG has already joined stabilisation missions in the Solomon Islands and responded to natural disasters in the region.

The two countries have had a very substantial defence cooperation program for decades, covering combined military exercises, training, infrastructure projects and advisory support. A formal treaty would now elevate these links, with formal ratification from both parliaments and serious legal commitments on both sides.

Read more: Penny Wong's diplomacy efforts in the Pacific begin to bear fruit with PNG security pact

It would also, of course, signal that Australia, not China, is PNG’s partner of choice.

The content of the treaty is yet to be negotiated, but we can expect the military-to-military relationship to be taken to a new level, encompassing more intensive joint training and operations.

It is unclear whether this will include an agreement to base troops on each other’s soil, on a rotational or some other basis. But it is clear from Albanese’s comments in Port Moresby the enhanced security ties will focus on new threats, including cyber-security and climate change.

The Pacific is experiencing the same cyber-security disruptions Australia has recently. These countries have weaker defence systems than Australia’s. Vanuatu, for example, fell victim to a major ransomware attack last year.

The Australian government and defence force should play an important role in helping countries like PNG strengthen their capacities to protect vital strategic and other information from these types of attacks, especially given the increasingly competitive geo-strategic conditions across the region.

China looms large as a concern here, and if Australia’s regional partners are vulnerable in this sense, then Australia is, too.

The threats posed by climate change

Pacific Island leaders have made it very clear, however, they see climate change as the overriding threat to their security.

For them, the enemy is increasingly frequent and harsh droughts and storms and the loss of arable land, which in turn threaten food security. International strategists depict these risks as a threat multiplier, disrupting food and water security, intensifying social fragility and straining weak institutions.

There is already concern that responding to natural disasters in the Pacific and at home could challenge the Australian Defence Force capacities over time.

Read more: Climate change poses a 'direct threat' to Australia's national security. It must be a political priority

The security implications of climate change are actually most stark in everyday life in PNG. Tensions within family groups and communities in informal urban settlements, or between neighbouring tribal groups in more remote regions, can explode in ways that may not gain the attention of the international strategic community, but which nonetheless cause great social damage.

These tensions can lead to family and gender-based violence or tribal fighting over scarce resources. Lasting solutions to these issues cannot depend on foreign assistance alone; they will require PNG and its leadership to step more into the driving seat and take responsibility.

The same can be said of the overarching bilateral relationship between Australia and PNG. A partnership of equals will require PNG to work harder to set the direction of the relationship. The PNG government also needs to demonstrate it’s using its own funds well to address the development challenges our aid program is seeking to mitigate.

At the Australian end, the relationship needs to be better understood publicly as important in its own right – not just because of China.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Ian Kemish, The University of Queensland.

Read more:

Ian Kemish is a former senior Australian diplomat who served, among other roles, as High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea. He is the voluntary chair of the Kokoda Track Foundation and provides consultancy support to the Global Partnership for Education in the Pacific. Both of these organisations receive some funding from the Australian Government.