KUNDIAWA - The recent surge of Chinese influence in the western Pacific and especially in Australia’s former colony Papua New Guinea should not be a surprise.
China has been in the region long enough to capitalise on weaknesses in the Papua New Guinea-Australia relationship.
Instead of Australia getting anxious and wringing its hands, Canberra should be asking where it has gone wrong as PNG’s big brother and start working on fixing the relationship.
The official Chinese presence in PNG goes back to 1976 when the People’s Republic of China established diplomatic ties soon after PNG gained independence in 1975.
So China has been here for over 41 years providing investment and development aid to PNG. But it was only after 2000 that bilateral ties with PNG in investment, health, education and infrastructure intensified. And this included military training for the PNG Defence Force in 2013. That was a signal.
Although Australia has provided billions of dollars’ worth of aid to PNG annually since independence – half a billion a year currently - debate about its impact has been contentious.
How has this huge amount of aid transformed the general development of PNG and the livelihood of its people, especially the rural majority who reside in traditional communities?
There have been many impediments to aid effectiveness. One good example is the road system.
Difficulty in service delivery posed by the lack of efficient transport has been a significant obstacle to success.
About 85% of PNG’s population dwell in rural communities scattered across remote and rugged terrain where road access is a major problem.
Most of these communities have no road access even in this 21st century. Villages and hamlets only accessible by plane or chopper make services delivery expensive and often impossible.
Australia knows about this and has documented it in numerous aid review reports. But its Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has largely failed to address this huge problem.
As PNG’s traditional ally and closest neighbour, Australia could have done much more in this sphere – a decent road system is imperative to equitable economic development in this country.
Instead DFAT has over the years tailored program predominantly toward human development, specifically health and education, and most recently good governance, law and justice.
All important, of course, but somehow ending up benefiting mostly the urban-based elite class who are out of touch of the rural population.
Australia doesn’t seem to have a comprehensive, workable plan to enable the rural majority to advance in terms of physical and economic development.
Instead it regards Papua New Guinea as an economically impoverished, politically weak and insignificant - only good for Australian companies to rip out her vast resources and walk away.
When PNG is faced with an economic crisis, which we are at present, Australia hasn’t come up with any special rescue package. Instead Canberra seems to have folded its hands and watched to see at which point PNG might sink. Hopefully after APEC.
Sure the sentiment is that Australia doesn’t want PNG to fail; but its passivity and lack of concern seems to belie the truth of that.
So it is good that China (perhaps aided by a bit of a shake from the Americans) seems to be waking Australia from its slumber. It is now time for Canberra to ask itself where it has gone wrong, why and what it can do to find ways to improve on its approach.
Australian aid to PNG apparently was being reviewed in Port Moresby last week. Hopefully something different, bigger and better will come out of that.
However, as long as the current focus of Australian aid to PNG continues to avoid the basic challenges, and the problem of transportation is really iconic, the meaningful delivery of services to the rural majority means that the bulk of Papua New Guineans will flounder.
If China through its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ can make a difference in important but neglected infrastructure development, so be it.
It will make service delivery easier and cheaper. It will improve health and education services in rural areas.
It will stimulate business activity, especially small to medium enterprises in rural PNG.
It will stimulate agriculture and improve logistics to increase inter-provincial and regional trade.
It can be a new dawn for PNG, especially the rural majority.