‘Australia's Northern Shield? Papua New Guinea and the Defence of Australia since 1880’ by Bruce Hunt, Monash University Publishing, March 2017. Paperback, 374 pp. ISBN 978-1-925495-40-9. $39.95
WHEN prime minister Malcolm Turnbull made his first official visit to Papua New Guinea in mid-April, a series of gaffes lit up local social media reinforcing perceptions of Australian disrespect for the country.
In PNG, social media are big (there are 700,000 Facebook users alone) and very influential in an increasingly activist middle class that an edgy O’Neill government repeatedly threatens to curb.
And the gaffes? Initially there was a fiery accusation by ex-prime minister Sir Mekere Morauta that the visit was timed to interfere with PNG’s impending national election. Then local journalists were excluded from two press conferences (the Australian High Commission later apologising for an ‘oversight’), a business breakfast faced allegations of race discrimination and Turnbull clumsily evaded questions about Australia’s marooned Manus asylum seekers.
An irritated Opposition Leader, Don Polye, reminded Turnbull that PNG was no longer an Australian colony.
It wasn’t quite the ‘hail fellow well met’ chumminess that Turnbull might have expected from our nearest neighbour, former colony, largest aid recipient and erstwhile shield against threats from the north.
Indeed the visit demonstrated something observers had suspected for some time – that, exacerbated by the Manus refugee imbroglio, much has changed in the relationship between the two close neighbours.
This is an association that goes back 140 years and, as Dr Bruce Hunt emphasises in his absorbing and elegantly crafted book, ‘Australia’s Northern Shield?’ the relationship has been grounded in the notion that there could be no secure Australia if the island of New Guinea was not itself secure.
In 1884, when Germany annexed north-east New Guinea, nervous Australia colonies persuaded Britain to acquire the unclaimed south-east of the island, which Australia became responsible for.
Then in September 1914, Australia’s first military action of World War I saw it taking control of north-east New Guinea when an expeditionary force seized Rabaul from the German garrison.
This large chunk of territory – from Manus to Bougainville - was later formally secured by Australia under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, bringing the entire eastern half of the island of New Guinea under our formal control.
Prime Minister Billy Hughes took the opportunity to remind the Australian parliament of “how utterly the safety of Australia depended upon the possession of these islands”.
But it required a sequence of seismic events that began twenty years later to stir significant action. First the Japanese invasion of 1942, then the growing global anti-colonial movement of the 1950s, Indonesian konfrontasi and the Dutch abdication of West Papua in the early 1960s, and proto-nationalist civil strife in New Britain and Bougainville in the late 1960s.
On 16 September 1975, Australia relinquished sovereignty, creating the new nation of Papua New Guinea. All went reasonably well until the Bougainville Civil War of the 1990s in which Australia played a major and unhelpful role.
The last 20 years have been dogged by issues of ‘governance’, that is, concern about how PNG spends Australia’s aid contribution which this year is $558 million plus another $500 million for the Manus refugee detention centre.
Bruce Hunt relates an enthralling political history and it is a shame the book effectively ends in 1977, soon after PNG’s independence, with just a short final chapter to bring it to the present. The forty years since deserve equally meticulous and insightful treatment, and given that Hunt is a masterful researcher, analyst and narrator, perhaps this challenge is within his gift.
He sums up that “PNG is no longer seen as a shield or bulwark to protect Australia from invasion.” Perhaps, but it seems to be emerging instead as a stage for big power political engagement right on our doorstep.
It’s about five years since tensions between the United States and China began to escalate in the western Pacific – strategic rivalry that has seen China boost its soft power in the Pacific islands and its military power in the South China Sea. The United States’ reactive ‘pivot’ included the deployment of 2,500 marines to the region, some of them in Australia’s north.
In this context, John Kocsis, writing in the Harvard Political Review, referred to Papua New Guinea as the “understudied proxy nation … whose domestic political instability has made it a surprising focus of American and Chinese geopolitical manoeuvring.”
PNG’s great resource wealth, political instability, developmental backwardness and elite venality are topics which often emerge in discussions of the country, often blurring a more balanced understanding of what might constitute a strategically apposite relationship with Australia.
When it was little more than an inert landmass with a people just opening their eyes to the outside world, PNG could be aptly perceived as a shield.
Now, however, PNG is home to a well-educated and growing middle class which is getting increasingly fed up with the serial failures of an inept and kleptocratic political leadership.
While in official pronouncements Australia states repeatedly that we have “a special relationship” with PNG, the truth is we have fallen well short of being a true strategic partner, nor are we an honest broker. In fact, there is much in our attitude to PNG that has a colonial appearance.
After the recent snub to PNG journalists, PNG opposition leader Don Polye saw fit to rebuke Turnbull, saying that “we’re no longer your colony; we must be treated with respect.” His words would have been unnecessary were Australia conducting the relationship in a competent manner.
Referring to Turnbull, PNG’s high commissioner in the United Kingdom Winnie Kiap tweeted, “Something disturbing when leader of a nation disregards sovereignty of host nation”.
Over the last twenty years, Australia’s relationship with PNG has drifted from aspiring to strategic partnership to a more pragmatic formulation.
The “new narrative encompassing a shared vision”, that Julie Bishop spoke of as shadow foreign minister, never developed. Instead, Australia’s inducements to PNG to accept unwanted refugees who sought to reach our shores were a real life enactment of a preconception that ‘if we pay PNG enough, they’ll do what we want’.
It seems that Australia, perceiving PNG as a place to which we could delegate the political issue of boat arrivals, and PNG, seeing us a place that would reward it handsomely for the privilege, managed to give effect to an opportunism that has crowded out more important geo-strategic considerations and a more mature and cohesive relationship.
So could the new threat in our immediate neighbourhood be Australia’s failure to convert Dr Hunt’s historical shield into a more sophisticated and embracing concord developed on the strong foundation of an equal, honest and authentic relationship?
Between the escalation of China’s influence and the shallow, money-based association we have nurtured with PNG, Australia may already be well advanced in creating a major strategic problem for itself.
Papua New Guinea no longer a shield, but a bastion of disaffection.
Bruce Hunt takes as one of his opening quotes a citation from the 2016 Defence White Paper: “Australia cannot be secure if our immediate neighbourhood, including PNG, became the source of a threat to Australia.”
It would indeed be a paradox if it was our own failure to maintain an effective and understanding relationship with PNG that proved to be the underlying cause of that threat.