Australia’s influence in – and knowledge of – the Pacific diminishes
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What now, Australia? You’re being truly outgunned by China


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.


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Eric Coote

PNG is not Australia - nothing like it. Our northern neighbour is on the violent ring of fire and on the violent leading edge of the Australian continental plate, it also experiences massive rainfall especially on slopes facing the monsoonal winds.

This country historically had isolated communities for a good reason. Infrastructure is a Canberra and Chinese wet dream, good luck with that as violent tectonics and the climate will ensure expenditure will be endless and probably infinite, unlike the roads that disappear down the drain quicktime.

Debt is another matter, the bankers friend that enslaves. The Chinese learn from the northern Anglosphere how to subjugate the third world.

Australia has been a good and generous friend but in a hurry, hounded by the UN, it set up a parliamentary system that ignored local governance and the authority of tribal elders. Like the missions, it imposed a rigid system on a people that survived 50,000 years because of their flexibility.

Wealth (and debt) inequality will explode one day and it may already be too late to go back. I expect the richly endowed rural poor to survive a lot longer though - they know their jungle intimately.

Barbara Short

Francis, I look at the "Big Picture".

China is a country with a huge population of approx. 1.4 billion people. It is huge. It has recently been going through a form of Industrial Revolution.There are some excellent articles online on this topic. One written by a top Chinese academic at an American university fascinated me. You need to read them.

It has all these secondary industries producing all manner of manufactured goods and it needs to be able to sell them. So for the past few years it has been building this Belt and Road around the world to enable it to move its products to the rest of the world, its marketplace.

Then there is Indonesia with 261 million people, living on many different islands, with a long history going back to the great Majapahit Empire. It is a proud country and it includes half the island of New Guinea and knows very well that running down the middle of this island, from east to west, is a chain of mountains full of wealth.

It is in the process of gaining the control over a huge mine from the Americans. It is evidently prospecting for minerals near the border with PNG at the moment and reputedly has found something worth exploring. It has its eyes on PNG and it does not like Chinese people coming in and telling it what to do.

Then there is Australia, with 24 million ... an island which is mainly a desert or semi-desert, where an ancient aboriginal civilization has been invaded by Europeans. Today it is a thriving small multi-cultural country, also with a strong mineral resource base.

For a time in the last century Australia undertook to "look after" Papua and New Guinea. The Germans and British had colonised Papua and New Guinea and Australia ended up helping the country towards becoming Independent.Two small colonies, like Irian Jaya, in the west of the island. PNG now has 8 million people and it is Independent but one wonders how long it will remain in this state.

At the moment it appears that is is becoming a country that has over-borrowed from the Chinese, in its Belt and Road expansion, so it is quite likely the Chinese will find some way of getting their money back.

I have a friend who worked in PNG for many years and who now lives in Cambodia. He is watching the way China is working in grabbing everything it wants through this part of SE Asia. He feels Indonesia is watching closely and making quiet moves to prepare itself to take China on in PNG when their influence becomes unbearable. Australia will just be a bystander in this. PNG is a bit far from China for them to defend it against its big neighbor. So he feels that it is just a matter of time and Indonesia will take over PNG.

Australia will be too busy looking after itself to worry. Australia has a good working relationship with Indonesia so if PNG turns its back on us and ends up getting taken over by Indonesia, the average Australian, who has no knowledge of PNG, is not going to be too concerned.

Meanwhile, Australia and New Zealand, which have both grown from former British colonies, and the USA, also a country populated by the early migrants from the UK and Europe, will continue to support each other.

Max Uechtritz | Facebook

I did a TV interview with the then new Prime Minister, Paias Wingti, in 1985, and the one thing I remember clearly - as I was so taken aback - was him warning that he'd be looking to China for aid and financial support. Been in the works for a while.

Francis Nii

Thank you, Robert. Australia is too busy listening to US's concern about Chinese emergence in the pacific including PNG and I think it is forgetting its own potential to step up and maintain its status as PNG's big brother. As someone commented the pitch was Australia's but it didn't keep it.

From reading Peter Hartcher's commentaries, Australia with US at its back will manoeuvre to regain lost grounds.

Interesting times in the next three to five years. We watch and see.

Francis Nii

I have read some of the many interestingg commentaries by Peter Hartcher of Sydney Morning Herald on the Chinese emergence in the pacific and in one of them he said and I quote "The reason that Papua New Guinea and earlier countries like Vanuatu and the Solomons Islands are interested in the Belt and Road Initiative is that we (Australia) as benefactors is have not done enough." I think that's a fair observation, Barbara. I also agree with his remark that Australia is at the wake up stage in its relationship with PNG.

China is a communist nation and Indonesia is predominantly Muslim and how Indonesia will invade PNG because of Chinese emergence in PNG is something I can't understand, Barbara.

May be international espionage in this power struggle?

Robert Muka

As usual great piece of writing Francis. It is obvious, Chinese can fund road projects whilst the Australians via their aid can project manage on behalf of the PNG government.

A pilot project can be the Karamui - Gumine road. Talk to J Kama MP to take advantage of this situation✌.

Barbara Short

I don't think we were out-gunned!

We gave PNG the chance to be Independent. I worked very hard to educate people so they could help in the running of PNG once it got its Independence.

Somare decided to favour the Chinese. O'Neill has followed. So if PNG gets in debt to China and China gradually directs more of what goes on in PNG and gradually they lose their Independence then who is to blame?

Some think that when the Chinese start to control PNG the Indonesians next door will come in and ask them to leave. Then PNG will just become part of Indonesia.

Arthur Williams

I lived for several years in Tari and during that time was surprised to see, on the very troublesome Poroma Mountain section of the Okuk Highway, a sign advising road users that it was being realigned etc by Australian Army engineers.

Are they still working in PNG?

Recently read three articles on railway infrastructure in Kenya & Djibouti

1 - By Ferdinand Omondi BBC Africa, Nairobi. Kenya's Chinese-funded railway makes losses

Kenya’s flagship railway project registered losses of $100m (£76m) in its first year of operation, according to the transport ministry.

The China-funded standard gauge railway - which links the coastal city of Mombasa to the capital, Nairobi, - was funded by a $3bn loan from China’s Exim bank, to be repaid over 15 years.

Economists estimate that China now owns 70% of Kenya’s debt.

2 - Kenya just opened a $4 billion Chinese-built railway, its largest infrastructure project in 50 years by Connor Gaffey

The $3.8 billion, 298-mile stretch of railway is the work of the China Road and Bridge Corporation, a state-owned enterprise that build on Beijing’s behalf in Africa.

The Chinese began building the line in December 2014 and completed the first section, the Nairobi-Mombasa line, 18 months early. The line is further evidence of China’s deep reach within Africa and follows closely after a $4.2 billion, 470-mile railway linking the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa with Djibouti, a port country on the Red Sea, was opened in January.

In Kenya alone, imports from China grew to $5 billion in 2016—a threefold increase since 2010—compared to $780 million from the United States, the Financial Times reported.

It’s part of a planned seven-country rail network
The Nairobi-Mombasa line is just the first instalment in the Chinese-funded project to improve rail links in East Africa.

The line is planned to extend westward from Kenya and into Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, and northward into South Sudan and Ethiopia.

Railway vandals may be executed

Coming just months before an August general election, the railway is evidently a source of pride and political capital for President Kenyatta. And the Kenyan head of state is so determined to keep it that way, he has threatened to introduce a new law sanctioning people who vandalize the railway with the death penalty

3 - Djibouti Port Doraleh- Chinese firm waits in wings after Djibouti nationalizes port facilities operated by DP World

In the world’s only country that hosts both an American and a Chinese naval base, a Dubai firm is engaged in “crisis talks” with Djibouti after the East African state nationalized port facilities less than 10 miles from the Pentagon’s key outpost in the troubled Horn of Africa, amid widespread local media reports that a Chinese firm is in line to take over the contract.

China’s navy completed its the first permanent foreign military installation for the People’s Liberation Arm with plans to house up to 10,000 troops, more than the 4,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel based at nearby Camp Lemonnier and French troops combined.

One berth at Port Doraleh already is reserved for exclusive use of the Chinese navy, and control of the facility by Beijing could have consequences for French and U.S. warships.

Philip Fitzpatrick

You won't get Australia to agree to coordinate aid with China Francis,they are too heavily influenced by the US.

China seems to want to cooperate however.

To get them together the impetus would have to come from PNG.

If PNG designs projects using components from both countries it may work.

Chips Mackellar

The problem of misdirected Australian aid has of course obtained ever since Independence, and although it has been obvious to those of us who served in PNG, it has entirely escaped those Australian public servants, politicians, and the business elite who could have helped but didn't know how.

So about ten years ago John Pasquarelli and I drafted a proposal to re-establish ASOPA as a training ground for those in Australia who could help and those PNG nationals who could be in receipt of intended aid.

The proposal was that the new ASOPA should be an adjunct to James Cook University at Townsville, using its existing academic staff, and the course offered to be of four months duration, twice a year, with sixty persons per course, 30 each from Australia, and PNG, all chosen from ordinary walks of life.

For example, teachers, nurses, policemen, carpenters, engineers, army personnel and so on, ordinarily living outside of the main metropolitan areas of both countries.

The curriculum was intended to be the same as that of the original ASOPA, updated to accommodate the current situation. From these humble beginnings it was proposed that over time a greater appreciation of the situation would slowly filter through to those who could help and to those who could receive Australia's foreign aid in PNG.

I handed the proposal to a cabinet minister in the Howard government and promptly heard no more about it. Subsequent efforts by me and other former kiaps to revive this proposal have also had no results. So to cut a long story short, we did try.

Francis Nii

A friend of mind who is working with the National Research Insitute posted on Facebook that Australian aid was undergoing review in Port Moresby and he was part of the team. That was last week.

He is from Salt Nomane. About another participants, I have no idea, Daniel.

Francis Nii

Phil, your suggestion of Australia working together with China to help PNG with expertise in priority areas is good. We are not at war so why not share expertise and technology to enhance results?

Daniel Doyle

Canberra admits to having been involved in anything that went wrong? Dream on, Francis, the kiddycrats of Canberra know it all.

It would be interesting to know about the recently conducted review. Who were the participants? Were Papua New Guineans and others who have an in depth knowledge of the realities of life for the majority of PNGs in the majority?

I experienced a team with over 200 years of experience in education in PNG being overruled by Canberra personnel whose experience of PNG amounted to little more than being driven from the Holiday Inn to the Australian High Commission.

Hope it doesn't happen again.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The Chinese certainly understand the importance of infrastructure and that's where most of its aid is directed.

It is unfortunate that a lot of the infrastructure it builds quickly falls into disrepair or is not even used by the recipient country because the internal elements are not there.

I recall seeing a magnificent university built by China on the Vanuatu island of Santo standing empty and unused because the country didn't have the resources to staff it or run it.

Australia's biggest problem with its aid is that it is unable to control how it is spent. This is obvious even in the small provinces like Simbu where Francis lives. There are plenty of failed projects, especially roadworks, on display to show this.

It's all a bit curious because just before 1975 Australia knew exactly what was needed and was busily working towards those goals.

It's a shame that Australia takes so much notice of the US, otherwise it could be working with China and coordinating aid delivery. China is good at infrastructure and Australia is good at human resources. If they got together there could be a good outcome.

A decent government in PNG would also help of course.

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