7 June 2023
THE VIEW FROM PAPUA NEW GUINEA
For so long, Australia held the title of deputy sheriff in the Pacific region. The sheriff, the United States, had confidence that its deputy had the situation in the Pacific region under control. The US focused its attention elsewhere, particularly on the Middle East to address extremism and on East Asia to contain the rise of China. But the visit last month by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Port Moresby to sign a defence cooperation and a maritime patrol agreement shows the reentry of the US into the Pacific region. As a result, Australia’s traditional role and status in the region have been undermined.
The decision by Solomon Islands to switch diplomatic recognition in 2019 and sign a security agreement with China in 2022 triggered a significant change in the Pacific. Countries in the region now see China as an alternative economic and security partner. China has the capacity and capability to compete with Australia and to a lesser extent New Zealand for influence in the Pacific. More importantly, the Solomon Islands agreement showed how Australia had lost control and allowed China to gain an upper hand.
The US felt it needed to step in to resolve this worrying situation. And so it planned a visit by President Joe Biden, who cancelled due to the US debt ceiling crisis, and pursued the defence and maritime security – or “ship rider” - agreements. The speed with which the US moved to address PNG’s security interests by choosing to reactivate a 1989 status of force agreement, and introduce the ship rider program, showed its lack of trust in Australia.
This was a sad development for Australia, which had worked tirelessly over the years to make sure the region was well looked after through various multilateral and bilateral diplomatic and defence programs. Australian’s Pacific Patrol Boat Program and its successor the Pacific Maritime Security Program supplied patrol boats to different countries. Its bilateral Defence Cooperation Program (DCP) helped build capacity in many countries. Its efforts to ensure the Boe Declaration – a 2018 text signed by all members of the Pacific Islands Forum - is seen as the region’s pivotal security arrangement, through setting up institutions to address security issues, is another notable achievement.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong could have told Biden that they can handle the situation. They could have advised the US that it did not need to sign the new defence and maritime security agreements. Furthermore, they could have told the US not to open new embassies in the region. As Rory Medcalf stated recently in Australian Foreign Affairs (“Girt by China”), Australia knows the Pacific region better than the US, India, China, or any other country. Albanese and Wong could have told the US that Australia will continue to do its job as deputy sheriff - just support them with the additional resources they need.
Hence, the US could have increased its involvement subtly via Australia’s patrol boat or defence cooperation agreements in PNG to avoid showing panic or fear. The US Coast Guard could have been part of Australian-funded sovereign border patrols conducted by the PNG Defence Force’s (PNGDF) navy branch based at Lombrum naval base. In addition, US security satellites could have been part of the aerial surveillance component of the DCP involving the PNGDF’s air force branch, to complement contracted surveillance flights or two PAC750 aircrafts being provided this year by Australia.
Washington and Canberra could have worked together to review what Australia had done so far in PNG. This would then determine how the US could reinforce what Australia is doing. Australia has worked with China and PNG to combat malaria. Albanese and Wong could draw on this experience working with China and encourage the US to take a unified trilateral maritime security approach to address the problem of illegal, unregulated and unrestricted fishing.
As such, it is worrying to see that Australia’s job as the deputy sheriff in the region is now under the spotlight. The US has undermined the systems and structures put in place by Australia throughout the Pacific by trying to do things in parallel. Australia has allowed the US to override its authority in the region and to undermine its influence over its former colony.
Albanese and Wong will now need to manage the implications of the actions taken by its powerful ally. Australians, Papua New Guineans, and others in the Pacific are closely watching the Labour Government’s next steps. Canberra will need to ask where it went wrong and how it can move forward from here.
Bernard Yegiora is a lecturer in the Department of PNG Studies and International Relations at the Divine Word University
FROM THE CURRENT ISSUE
The Fix by Vafa Ghazavi
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