18 May 2022
Military exercises with PNG
Last week, the Australian Defence Force concluded a two-month training exercise with the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF), seeking to enhance PNG’s ability to respond to any unrest during next month’s election. The Australian Army’s 3rd Brigade was joined by the United Kingdom’s 2nd Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles and the United States’ Wisconsin National Guard in training the PNGDF to de-escalate conflict and avoid heavy-handed approaches.
Elections in PNG are highly complex, due to geography, poor transport infrastructure, significant community rivalries, financial restraints, disenfranchisement of women, and difficulties with election administration. PNG’s 2017 election was particularly violent, with widespread voter intimidation, the destruction of property, and the hijacking of ballot boxes. A total of 204 people were killed in election-related violence – many as a result of excessive use of force by security personnel.
Yet conditions this year could be even more complex, due to significant loss of employment and income owing to the pandemic, a general suspicion of vaccines causing additional health concerns, and increased inflation affecting people’s access to daily essentials. These factors could heighten community tensions and make the security of the election process more difficult.
Australia and its partners – the UK and US – are obviously keen to see the election conducted with integrity and in a peaceful manner. This is essential for the development and welfare of PNG, but also for the stability of Melanesia and the broader Pacific region.
Biden meets ASEAN
The White House hosted a two-day summit of ASEAN leaders last week, albeit without all ten members present. Myanmar was not invited, and the outgoing Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte, was absent because he did not want to travel to the United States “as a matter of principle”. The Philippines foreign minister attended in his place.
Understanding that South-East Asia is wary of being dragged into any strategic competition between the United States and China, President Joe Biden instead made climate change a central pillar of the summit. The leaders discussed the establishment of a new US-ASEAN Climate Solutions Hub, designed to accelerate the deployment of clean energy technology throughout the region, decarbonise the transport sector, reduce methane emissions, and facilitate collaboration with the US National Parks Service to counteract deforestation in South-East Asia.
For Australia, the summit presented a serious lesson about its own engagement with South-East Asia. Climate change poses an enormous regional security concern, but it also presents an opportunity for Australia to integrate more with its neighbours to the north. Australia can work with ASEAN on risk assessment and preparing for natural disasters, and it has the potential to be a significant exporter of renewable energy to nearby countries, such as Indonesia and Singapore.
Of course, both the United States and Australia will always have one eye on China in their engagements with South-East Asia, but the best way to project influence in the region is to take the concerns of ASEAN seriously.
War and wheat
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is posing a significant threat to the world’s food security. Ukraine was the world’s sixth-largest exporter of wheat in 2021, with around 10 per cent of the global export market. Due to the war, Ukraine’s grain shipments have plummeted from around five million tonnes per month to a few hundred thousand, causing a significant increase in prices.
India is the world’s second-largest producer of wheat, although its huge domestic consumption means it’s not a big exporter. Despite this, there was an expectation that India could make up Ukraine’s shortfall due to recent bumper crops, but as domestic inflation has increased, last week the Indian government – always hyper-aware of the cost of food – imposed a ban on the export of wheat. However, New Delhi clarified over the weekend that it would “ensure the fulfilment of the genuine needs” for countries that are dependent on wheat for their food security.
War has the unfortunate consequence of bringing opportunity as well as devastation. For Australia, as a major wheat exporting country, there is the potential to meet at least some of the world’s wheat needs. The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics is forecasting an increased wheat output by the end of the 2021/22 financial year, but believes that output will drop in 2022/23, due to the likelihood of continued excessively wet weather.
Wheat is so ubiquitous that continued access to it is often rarely considered. But the protracted war in Ukraine, domestic priorities in India, and climate change-induced abnormal weather conditions in Australia have led to a convergence of negative trends that are now affecting global food security.