PORT MORESBY - Australian prime minister Scott Morrison and his Papua New Guinean counterpart, Peter O’Neill recently signed off on a bilateral arrangement committing both countries to building a joint naval base on PNG's northerly island province of Manus.
Australia's upgrade of its security cooperation with PNG advances Australia's interest in counteracting China's growing influence in the Pacific Islands.
Australia, a traditional ally of the United States, is frantically trying to deter the expanding influence of China in the South Pacific.
As a former colonial administrator of PNG, the focus of Australia’s bilateral relations has always been rationalised on the notion that a stable PNG is vital to Australian strategic interest. A delicate approach respecting PNG’s sovereignty has underpinned previous dealings.
In the current context, this latest move to build a naval facility on PNG territory is unprecedented.
It is the first time an Australian naval base has been constructed on territory of a sovereign state in the Pacific Islands. This Australian strategy challenges the neutrality and political legitimacy of small states caught up in the geopolitical tussle for influence.
The agreement to build a joint naval base on PNG territory is seriously flawed.
The announcement comes as PNG prepares to host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders meet later this month. The decision by PNG to be party to a joint naval base agreement has not been debated in PNG's parliament and nor has civil society been engaged in discussions.
In previous arrangements of Australia-PNG cooperation, beginning with the 2004 enhanced cooperation program and the 2013 Manus offshore processing of asylum seekers, the PNG courts belatedly ruled these bilateral agreements unconstitutional.
Australian engagements with PNG have an unsavoury history of not conforming to a legitimate process of debate, capitalising on the weak political system in PNG.
PNG is presently undergoing financial woes with dwindling foreign reserves and a national budget burdened by an all-time high deficit. One can understand why the PNG prime minister is readily committing to the joint naval base. Much-needed financial resources from Australia may be an incentive for Peter O'Neill's decision.
PNG's national security is not predominantly military but emphasises areas of surveillance of fisheries resources and border protection targeting illicit activities of transnational non-state actors.
The Manus joint naval base agreement is an expression of militarisation. The danger with the base is that an innocuous defensive posture by Australia and PNG can easily be misread as offensive to China or another neighbouring state.
Technically, PNG is taking sides in the geo-political rivalry between China and the United States and its ally, Australia.
By allowing the use of its territory to project military capabilities against another state, PNG is backsliding on its commitment to non-aligned principles and long-standing foreign policy orientation affirming universalism.
After PNG gained independence in 1975, it pronounced as its foreign policy orientation the principles of “friend to all, enemy to none”. This ideal was paramount for PNG so it could navigate the bipolarity of the Cold War. Ever since, PNG has conformed to this basic tenet in its international relations.
Since 1993, PNG has been a member of the group of states that constitute the non-aligned movement. The non-aligned movement was created in 1961 and is explicit about its role in global politics. It seeks to “create an independent path in world politics that would not result in member states becoming pawns in the struggles between the major powers.”
PNG must go out of its way to reinforce these principles in its dealings with various big powers.
Peter O’Neill’s commitment of PNG to the naval base agreement with Australia is an open-ended military alliance against a perceived belligerent power. For small states who find themselves caught up in great power rivalry, the dilemma of entrapment in unwarranted military alliances is real.
This agreement diminishes PNG's neutrality and capacity to seek future cooperation from the states it is allying against.
For the foreseeable future, PNG will continue to need China’s cooperation on issues such as the banning of exported illegal logs to that country.
Taking sides in a geo-political rivalry, especially against China, could be detrimental. China is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council and possesses veto powers. China has previously used its veto in the UN Security Council to stall humanitarian intervention in the 1998-2003 Solomon Islands civil unrest because of Solomon Islands diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.
Staying clear of the geo-political rivalry between the United States and its allies and China is a sure way of maintaining flexibility and independence in PNG’s multilateral engagements.
Papua New Guineamust not take sides in exacerbating present misunderstandings in the Pacific Islands.