PORT MORESBY - Observers outside Papua New Guinea may find it a somewhat puzzling experience to pinpoint PNG's exact position in the current geopolitical manoeuvrings between the United States and its allies and China.
On the one hand there are difficulties in determining the basis for PNG's relations with China, and on the other hand in defining its relations with the United States and Australia.
On the whole, PNG's foreign relations are not informed by any rigorous process of foreign policy engagement and what is touted as being in PNG's interest is not necessarily a product of a serious refining of priorities. Rather, more than any structured decision-making, official foreign relations are determined by personalities, circumstances or perceived material benefits.
Cabinet and ministerial prerogatives in most instances frame how the foreign policy agenda is prosecuted on behalf of PNG. References to ‘cornerstone foreign policy principles’ are used, but often as an afterthought. Domestic stakeholders are disconnected from influencing foreign policy outcomes.
The recent move to rebuild a naval facility in Manus Province provides a good example of this approach.
The proposed Lombrum base will be the first time since 1975 that a facility housing foreign powers has been constructed in PNG.
The joint naval base agreement starts with something of a ‘democratic deficit’ because no Papua New Guinean input was sought. But Papua New Guineans can live with the impact of such deals.
Allan Gyngell and Michael Wesley argue that "foreign policy-making is a realm of government that needs to be subjected to a greater amount of public accountability and transparency". The Manus naval base agreement is an example of a foreign policy strategy that did not reflect Papua New Guinean designs.
Already, there are objections to this decision by Manus political leaders, who feel that the people of the province were not consulted on the matter. The decision by PNG to be party to the naval base agreement was never debated in PNG's parliament, even though parliament - as the highest law-making body in the land - has powers to ratify international treaties and agreements.
The parliamentary foreign affairs committee is non-existent and, in any event, was never allowed to consider submissions from the public on issues such as this.
In previous instances of Australia-PNG cooperation, beginning with the 2004 enhanced cooperation program and the 2013 Manus asylum-seekers processing centre, the PNG supreme court belatedly ruled them to be unconstitutional.
In general, Australian engagement with PNG has an unsavoury history of bypassing pre-emptive domestic scrutiny.
The fact that two previous landmark bilateral agreements between Australia and PNG were knocked back by the supreme court attests to deficiencies in domestic scrutiny and debate and that foreign relations are seen as the prerogative of the executive.
For purposes of expediency, domestic checks and balances on PNG's international commitments are routinely bypassed. It is an efficient way of keeping Papua New Guineans passive and reliant on the all-knowing executive arm of government.
I am tempted to argue that the competing powers in the Sino-American rivalry are advancing their own agendas by capitalising on these weaknesses in PNG's domestic scrutiny of foreign policy and an uninformed populace.
Without input and constructive participation by domestic actors in PNG, our country's position on international matters will further erode democratic processes and ultimately PNG sovereignty.
If PNG's diplomatic partners Australia and the US are serious about helping PNG build on our professed common values of adherence to the rule of law and democratic participation in decision-making, the same level of expectation that American and Australian citizens demand of their governments also needs encouragement in PNG.
In Western democracies like Australia and the United States, foreign policy is an outcome of a range of alternatives and debate is enjoined enthusiastically by domestic interest groups and actors.
In Australia for instance, the mass media is an agenda-setting stakeholder on foreign policy priorities. Non-government organisations, advocacy and lobby groups, political parties, research think-tanks and a multiplicity of interest groups and individuals make the process of foreign policy-making a rigorous and sometimes protracted affair.
This is a feature of political systems with established institutions and well-informed domestic actors. Moreover, foreign policy is a serious item in the electoral cycle and it can strongly influence election outcomes. Governments tend to be responsive to public opinion in developed political systems.
They are concerned about what their citizens think about foreign aid or going to war – issues on which voters often have strong opinions which have to be taken into account by governments. It is such processes in Western democracies that directly connect citizens to policy-making and which helps to align foreign policy to the preferences of citizens.
But it is incorrect to assume that these same connections exist in developing democracies like PNG, where the executive can be more dominant than parliament. Here, the preoccupation of elected officials is more parochial, tribal and concerned with the immediacy of pork-barrel politics.
Foreign relations is a sideshow and left to cabinet, prime minister and the foreign affairs ministry. Western governments in the region who wish to enlist the support of PNG in countering non-democratic powers ought to be mindful of these dynamics of PNG's foreign policy decision-making and do more to help nurture inclusive values rather than bypass them.
Patrick Kaiku teaches in the political science strand at the University of Papua New Guinea