Naval base ‘could draw PNG into conflict’

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By Brendan Nicholson*

There’s concern in Papua New Guinea that allowing Australia and the United States, or China, to build a regional naval base on Manus Island could draw PNG into a future conflict, says the island nation’s former prime minister, Sir Rabbie Namaliu.

Sir Rabbie told ASPI’s online ‘Strategic Vision 2020’ conference an issue that still needed to be dealt with was whether establishment of such a base would place PNG in a position where it would need automatically to support whoever set the facility up.

A plan now underway involves Australia helping to rebuild the Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island to accommodate PNG’s patrol boats.

Interviewed by veteran journalist Stan Grant, Sir Rabbie said the issue of a much larger regional naval base being established on Manus required greater examination. ‘And that’s a serious question that I personally don’t think has been addressed adequately enough, because we’re not covered by the ANZUS Treaty, for instance, or by any treaties with China either.’

Sir Rabbie said PNG had always espoused a ‘friend to all, enemy to none’ foreign policy and ‘we would prefer to avoid situations like that where establishing a regional base on Manus, for instance, can, and hopefully it will not, put PNG in a difficult position where it becomes involved in something that it was never intended for PNG to be involved in in the first place.’

On the question of local opposition to the current base redevelopment, Sir Rabbie said the Manus provincial government had, through the governor, insisted that its views be taken into account. He said that followed local people’s unhappy experience with the Australian asylum seeker centre on the island.

‘And that relates more to opportunities for their people in terms of business spin-offs. But also, in terms of what infrastructure, development assistance can be developed in the province under that arrangement,’ he said.

‘It is complicated by the fact that you have Australia and the US wanting, with PNG, to develop it as a regional base.

‘So, I guess the question is, is it too late now to review the arrangements, to give the Manus provincial government leaders a say, because you don’t want this situation to end up in the same place where the last arrangements that PNG had with Australia in relation to the Manus asylum seeker processing facility was one that left many leaders on Manus, including the governor and the people, terribly, terribly disappointed because things that were promised to them were not delivered, things under the arrangement. And that’s the sort of thing that they’re asking for. They want to avoid the same kind of experience with those sorts of issues. And they would like a review of the arrangement so that their views are fully taken into account.’

Sir Rabbie acknowledged that increasing Chinese aid to the region brought risks that nations might find themselves in debt traps. ‘I think there are always those risks and it depends on how countries negotiate and enter into these agreements. And it’s obvious that in some cases where those sorts of strings have been attached, the Chinese have obviously used those provisions to basically take over facilities or infrastructure overseas. And that’s something that each country has to be aware of,’ Sir Rabbie said.

‘And at the regional level, obviously we have to be conscious of it. And in some ways, we have to assist each other as well in terms of how we deal with these sorts of situations.’

Some Pacific nations had relations with the People’s Republic of China and others with Taiwan. This was a challenge. Solomon Islands had switched from Taiwan to the People’s Republic and that was seen to be a result of pressure from Beijing.

‘We’ve had diplomatic relations with China since independence. So, we’ve had a long relationship with China in that time. But we’ve also had great relations with Taiwan. We have separate arrangements with them. They have a trade office here in Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby. And so, we’ve been able to deal with both parties for quite a long time.’

Sir Rabbie said there had always been pressure from Beijing to stop Taiwan setting up even a trade mission in PNG. ‘But in the end, we managed to persuade them that the trade mission was primarily for trade and investment purposes, that we wanted the Taiwanese government to assist, where they have offered previously, to assist us in projects which they have the expertise to assist us with, particularly in agriculture. And so, they’ve been fairly happy in that area for over 30 years now in assisting us in agriculture, particularly with rice, you know? Rice cultivation, rice research, rice production.’

Asked if PNG might ultimately have to decide between Australia and China, Sir Rabbie replied that ‘hopefully’ matters would not come to that, but PNG would have to assess its own position in accordance with its independent foreign policy. Until now, it had very good relations with China as well as with Australia.

‘Obviously, any choice, if it has to be made, has to be assessed and analysed by the government at the time to see what is best in our national interests. But I know that the vast majority of our people here regard Australia as a very close friend.’

PNG had inherited much from Australia in terms of its administration and institutions and he did not believe it would be difficult for it to make that choice.

Sir Rabbie said Australia’s Pacific step-up aid program to the region was a good initiative because, for a long time, Pacific leaders felt that Australia was focusing more on international issues further away and at the expense of the Pacific. ‘And therefore, debts were developing, which resulted in other parties coming in and attempting to take advantage of those debts, both in terms of development assistance, as well as investment, and other forms of assistance to the area.

‘Since Pacific step-up, obviously, I mean, I think some balance has been brought to bear. And I think the people of the Pacific are now, at least in terms of PNG, are now beginning to appreciate again that we do have a friend who is a neighbour as well that is prepared to devote a bit more time and effort and resources to assist within the region because she is part of the region.’

The Coral Sea communications cable to Solomon Islands had generated tremendous goodwill.

There were still tensions over climate change, Sir Rabbie said, and that had been demonstrated at regional forums.

‘It’s a major challenge. It’s complex, and it’s something that needs to continue to be on the table for leaders to discuss because it is not a black and white issue. Australia’s interests obviously have to be appreciated. But the Pacific leaders also feel very strongly that their concerns in relation to climate change and the impact of that on populations, on land, as well as on other aspects of life need to be considered seriously.’

*Brendan Nicholson is executive editor of The Strategist.

First published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

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