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Australia’s sub-imperial relations with PNG

Written by: (Contributed) on 19 December 2023


(Above: US agent of influence Albanese with PNG Prime Minister James Marape on December 7.  Photo: Nick Haggarty, ABC News)

The signing of a new security treaty between Canberra and Port Moresby on December 7 has carried all the hallmarks of Australia being a sub-imperial power for 'US interests' in the wider Indo-Pacific region.

The security treaty, aimed at side-lining China as an emerging regional power, has followed the US treating China as a competitor and thereby, threat to their traditional diplomatic and hegemonic position.

The security treaty, however, is especially fraught with controversy as PNG remains faced with a constitutional crisis over its strained relationship with Bougainville.

Australia's diplomatic relations with neighbouring PNG have been topical for over fifty years, since independence of the country during the mid-1970s. PNG, as part of the Melanesian South Pacific, has also included the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, as strategically-placed countries for the pro-imperialist exercise of Australian sovereignty. Diplomacy between Australia and the three countries has been historically based in neo-colonial type relations: the former has exploited the latter for cheap minerals and resources.

The present potential $80 billion merger between Australian-based Santos and Woodside, for example, is primarily focussed upon greater access to PNG's vast oil and gas reserves. (1) Similar moves are common across the South Pacific, as vast wealth has been systematically siphoned off and paid in massive dividends to shareholders in western countries. Ordinary residents and citizens of the South Pacific, rarely, if ever, see any benefit from the neo-colonial relations.

Australia, officially, has 41 billionaires, a number of whom own and control large-scale mining companies. (2) What proportion of their vast wealth was linked to the extraction of South Pacific minerals and resources has not been disclosed in documentation in the public domain. It is likely to be considerable, if not huge.

The three South Pacific countries, however, tend to be politically unstable and have a multitude of internal problems: effective and transparent governance, basic security considerations, ethnic and inter-ethnic rivalries and separatist movements. They have far-reaching implications: the PNG constitution and military regulations, for example, contain the right to conscientious objection when dealing with ethnic problems as a safeguard for preventing the escalation of ethnic tensions.

The fact that China has also courted the three countries in recent decades has, therefore, raised serious diplomatic considerations in Canberra and the US, as the dominant regional players. Large-scale Chinese investment has taken place in recent years, based, primarily, in economic programs and infra-structure projects, which have effectively been designed to open the countries for later development.

Regional diplomatic rivalry between the US and China has, therefore, been increasingly played out in the small South Pacific arena. The US fear competition: their regional development programs have historically, however, been barely effective; the mass of the population of the South Pacific continue to live in poverty with subsistence life-styles.

The diplomatic rivalry has also had to take into account that Melanesian culture and sovereignty is based upon the notion of a 'friends to all, enemy to none' standpoint: domestic and foreign policy diplomatic positions tend to remain relatively independent and non-aligned. (3) A recent defence agreement with the US, for example, raised concerns in Port Moresby that 'it could compromise PNG's sovereignty'. (4)

The US, for example, recently re-opened an embassy in the Solomon Islands after decades of ignoring the small country and its significant strategic importance. Elsewhere, across the small region the US has now increased its presence. Australia, nevertheless, has remained the dominant player for 'US interests'; with all which that position entails.

China, diplomatically, remains quite popular in the South Pacific: local people rely upon cheap manufactured produce from China in their everyday lives.

Studies of the Solomon Islands, furthermore, have revealed China's aid 'is attractive to the Solomon Islands because it largely stays in Solomon Islands; Australian aid does not … this is a form of boomerang aid that simply returns to Australia … Australia was the largest recipient of its own aid funding '. (5) The studies concluded with Australia being assessed as a sub-imperial power.

Defined along the lines that 'Australia has a capable, technologically advanced military and a number of intelligence agencies that operate in the region and far afield to uphold the US-led order. Australia's trade and investment agreements are organised with a similar goal in mind', sub-imperialism is conducted by Australia remaining subservient to 'US interests'. (6)

Bougainville and PNG

The new security treaty between Australia and PNG, therefore, has to be evaluated and assessed in that light. The smaller print of the treaty is particularly revealing. A total of $200 million has been included for a new PNG police infra-structure and a new $110 million 'police investigations training centre in Port Moresby'. (7) While law and order is an important consideration for stability in PNG, the concern has to be seen in light of moves by the peoples of Bougainville for full independence from PNG.

The issue of Bougainville has been contentious for decades.

The former Australian colonial administration placed the island in PNG in the lead-up to independence in the mid-1970s. It was an uncomfortable fit. The inhabitants of Bougainville
had a strong independence movement and regarded themselves as ethnic Solomon Islanders.
During the late 1980s an insurgency led by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) began, which resulted in the largest open-cast mine in the world being closed due to hostilities. All attempts by the mine-owners and mercenaries to re-open it, failed.

The armed conflict saw human rights abuses on a wide scale: controversy over the use of Australian-issued helicopters for PNG Defence Force personnel to throw BRA personnel into the sea, some being still alive, remains a strong allegation from the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG). (8)

While a lasting peace agreement was eventually established after a decade of hostilities, a referendum in 2019 saw 97.7 per cent of the population of Bougainville vote for full independence, as opposed to the present autonomous status.

The whole matter of the referendum still remains a matter for the PNG government to resolve. They have, to date, proved apprehensive to deal with issue on account of other
parts of PNG feared to follow suit leading to the fragmentation of the large country into smaller 'countries'. The issue, nevertheless, will continue to simmer as separatist groups continue to agitate for a more localised sovereignty.

Behind the scenes, however, the US fears China will establish stronger diplomatic relations with Bougainville, given the opportunity. It has already been noted that 'China looks to make inroads in Bougainville, with promises to fund major infra-structure upgrades in the autonomous region'. (9)

A statement issued by the ABG Attorney-General, Ezekiel Massat, about the new security agreement was unequivocal: it was noted, 'Australia was deliberately avoiding its obligations to hold PNG accountable, amid delays by the Marape government in tabling the referendum result in the nation's parliament … Australia is supposedly the Big Brother in the Pacific, but it is a coward when it comes to the Bougainville independence issue'. (10)

As a sub-imperialist power Australia has moved into a very murky diplomatic area by signing the new security treaty with PNG. It is also highly significant to note that the agreement document itself, has constitutional considerations with the small print possibly having serious implications at a later date: it is considered legally binding, not merely a military-based treaty. (11)

                                         We need an independent foreign policy!     

1.     See: PNG key in Santos-Woodside merger, Australian, 12 December 2023.
2.     See: Aussie rich-listers' wealth up as inheritances pay off, Australian, 1 December 2023.
3.     PM stokes Bougainville tension, Australian, 8 December 2023.
4.     Ibid.
5.     Sub-Imperial Power – Australia in the International Arena, Clinton Fernandez, (Melbourne, 2022), pp. 94-97.
6.     Ibid., page 3.
7.     Australian, op.cit., 12 December 2023.
8.     Australian, op.cit., 8 December 2023.
9.     Australian, op.cit., 12 December 2023.
10.   Ibid.
11.   Australian, op.cit., 8 December 2023.


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