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Is Oz aid slackness to PNG a ploy to maintain the alliance


MELBOURNE - Over a number of years I’ve been reading contributions to PNG Attitude regarding Australian aid to Papua New Guinea and other Pacific/Indian Ocean nations. 

Each of these articles has tended to look at specific issues associated with the provision and management of aid without looking at the total picture and realising there may be a bigger unstated driver.

To understand how Australia’s aid to PNG evolved, we need to take a brief trip back in history.

In the mid-1800s a number of European nations were exploring the Pacific and Indian Oceans with a view to colonising new lands or influencing native populations.

The Queensland colonial government sought Great Britain’s action to claim some Pacific islands as a British colony but this was refused on the basis of the cost to establish and run a new colony.  Queensland then claimed the land anyway but Britain repudiated its action. However Queensland maintained a watch on Papua as an increasing number of traders, adventurers, prospectors and missionaries roamed the area. 

All this changed in 1888 when German colonisers and traders claimed the northern part of the mainland and the islands in what was to become German New Guinea. Britain immediately reacted by requiring that an expedition set out to claim as a colony the southern part (later called Papua) that they renamed British New Guinea. 

But this was only possible if the colonies of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria met the administrative and development costs which they agreed to do after lobbying by Queensland.

Until Australia became one country in 1901, this arrangement continued with the Queensland colonial government administering British New Guinea on behalf of the British. After Federation the British handed over practical control to the new Australian government in 1902 and this was ratified by the Papua Act of 1905.

In 1914 German New Guinea was occupied by Australia at Great Britain’s request and in its name.  It was governed as a military administration and the costs absorbed into Australia’s military budget.  In 1921, Australia was granted a League of Nations mandate over New Guinea and this remained until 1942 when the Japanese invaded, the civil administrations of both territories was suspended and a single military administration, ANGAU, was established.

This model continued after the war in the new civil administration until 1949, when it was ratified by the United Nations on behalf of the people of New Guinea.

So we get to the crux of this argument.  Even though strategists had been warning the government and the public about a potential Japanese threat for many years, Australia was woefully underprepared for the Pacific war and deeply shocked when it arrived at our shores. 

Fortunately, and with the help of the United States and Papua New Guineans, the Japanese were defeated in a number of land and sea battles and the threat to Australia was averted.

This left an indelible mark on Australia. In 1949, when Robert Menzies Liberal Party was elected to government, he immediately called for a complete review of Australia’s military forces and defence strategy.  

Two issues were fundamental to this review, the developing Cold War against Communism and the continuing fear that Australia could be invaded.

The principle outcome of the review was the development of a strategy known as ‘Forward Defence’. The object of this was for Australian and Allied forces to meet any future threat to the Australian mainland as far from Australian soil as possible.

Intrinsic to this thinking was recognition of the part PNG played as a physical barrier capable of significantly slowing and hampering invading forces. Menzies proudly declared that no war would ever again be fought on Australian soil.

The Australian commitment to support the United Nations, Great Britain and the United States in the Korean War of the early 1950s was the first opportunity to implement the new strategy.  The Malayan Emergency and Konfrontasi (Confrontation) with Indonesia were further examples of Australian forces serving offshore, with the later Vietnam War a classic example of the strategy at work.

About the same time as the defence review there was a meeting of British Empire (later Commonwealth) heads out of which came the Colombo Plan.  Deterrence of the spread of Communism was the aim and the strategic outcome was a scheme to contribute funds to a pool for Third World nations to make Communism a less attractive alternative.

Australia was a participant to this scheme as well as providing the administrative and development costs of the new joint Territory of Papua and New Guinea.  There was a vague aim of eventual independence for PNG but no timetable was set.

Australia had a visible presence in PNG of the three arms of the Australian military (ADF).  They participated in a range of activities from civic aid, emergency response and training the PNG Defence Force.

This meant that ADF troops were patrolling in rural areas which was giving them recognition among the village people and familiarisation with the terrain and climate.

When I was acting ADC Malalaua in 1974, out of the blue an SAS patrol walked into the station without prior notice.  They were due to fly out the next day so I accommodated them around the station with the troop leader and 2IC at my house.

They had walked from Wau to ascertain whether or not the Wau-Bulldog Road could be made trafficable and reopened.  I challenged this as I knew there had been a number of Army patrols undertaking the same task. 

Finally, after a few beers, they admitted there were several simultaneous patrols occurring at different locations in PNG tasked with issues associated with events that could occur with forthcoming Independence.

In 1974 the Whitlam government centralised all overseas spending sources into a single agency known as the Australian Development Assistance Agency (ADAA).  It was this agency that was responsible for the negotiations for my contract extension and continuation.   

Just before independence the PNG economy consisted of one-third domestic, one-third Bougainville Copper and one- third Australian aid.

In the years since independence Australia’s contribution to the PNG economy has continued and the focus shifted from administration to programs and projects.  The projected aid for 2018-19 is $A572 million or 1,380 million. It’s no longer one-third of the PNG economy but it is still a considerable sum.

Over the years numerous contributions and comments have been posted in PNG Attitude noting the apparent lack of fiscal responsibility, good governance and transparency with this money by both Australian and PNG governments.

Many of us, both in headquarters and the field, felt that there was indecent haste towards self-government and independence and that the systems to accommodate this radical shift had not been adequately established.

I’m sure I was not the only kiap to receive a written missive from the rural population, “Mipela no inap lukautim mipela” [‘we’re not ready to governourselves’].

So perhaps Australia conceded it had an historical and moral obligation to PNG that could be assuaged by cash. Or perhaps chief minister Michael Somare reminded the Australians, “You owe us.”

However, I believe there is a more compelling alternative for the huge level of aid to PNG. Australia developed its Forward Defence strategy influenced by the part that the PNG people, climate and terrain played in the defeat of the Japanese invasion. 

The core part of this strategy is the ability of Australian forces to freely move and have legal access to lands where a foreign military threat may emerge, be met and vanquished.

But, if it doesn’t have direct legal access, it is relying on the PNG government of the day to accept that it has the financially-based moral obligation to allow Australian forces unfettered access and action to defeat a direct regional threat.

Whilst there is a cooperative partnership agreement between the two nations which includes defence cooperation, it does not state the nature, level or legalities by which the agreement will be invoked.

So my proposition is that the nature and level of Australian aid to PNG, coupled with the apparent lack of diligent scrutiny in Australia and PNG, is a deliberate ploy to create an implied obligation for the PNG government to allow unfettered access for Australian forces to meet foreign threats to Australia in PNG whenever they arise.

The fly in the ointment, of course, is China - that is exercising military and financial force in the Pacific and has the capacity to greatly outspend Australia.  Therein lies the problem for Australia.  It can no longer guarantee that any implied PNG obligation remains in place.

Given the apparent ease with which PNG politicians seem to accrue wealth, how will they line up if such a threat needs to be met? Are they being very cunning and exploiting their ability to play one side against the other?

While this may have huge financial benefits for individual politicians, at some point they may have to choose between Australia (and the US) and China.

That’s when the game will get particularly interesting.


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Ross Wilkinson

The lapuns on the New Guinea side used to tell us that the pre-world war two Australian administration was the "gut taim," but the very old lapun tru used to say tthe the German administration was the real "gut taim."

Philip Kai Morre

If the Germans still controlled New Guinea, would we be better or worse? I tend to think that Germany is one of the world powers in terms of technological ability and economy. If Germany hadn't got involved in both world wars they would be far better to colonise New Guinea.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Japan seems to have been largely ignored in the 21st century scenarios Paul.

There is no love lost between the Japanese and the Chinese.

The Japanese have been quietly re-arming themselves for a while now and are firmly aligned with the US (at least before Trump arrived on the scene). They would be a major player if anything broke out in our neck of the woods.

Wouldn't that be ironic, the Japanese rescuing Australia from the Chinese?

They make really good submarines, much better than the French I hear.

Paul Oates

Phil - I think your contention is understandable but Japan was on an expansionist plan since it defeated the Russians in 1905. Manchuria was then progressively absorbed along with Korea that was in effect a Japanese colony.

It is true that the US sought to contain Japan, especially over their oil imports and that helped lead to their decision to launch an extension of their undeclared war, already well underway in China.

The similarities between the early 20th Century and the early 21st Century, of what's happening to our near North should not be dismissed.

As George Satayana observed; 'Those who turn their back on history are doomed to repeat it.'

Paul Oates

Ross - you are spot on in calling it a game. The contest between Russia, who wanted access to the warm water ports of the Indian Ocean, and Britain, who sought to retain her Indian Empire, was also called ‘The Great Game’.

It seems like humankind is constantly fighting our own ‘Great Game’. You only have to look at the number of sometimes extremely graphic and violent video games on computers and ‘smart phones’ to work out that adolescent males are addicted to this type of contest. Testosterone reigns supreme and extends onto the football field etc.

It is a fact that those who lead the nations these days are not those who actually have to fight in the blood and guts of the front line.

The US recently even had to design a new set of medals to cope with those who sat behind computer screens a long way away and fight with armed drones, often being controlled on another continent.

Today’s allies can easily become tomorrow’s enemy. It’s simply depends on, as an ex British PM (was it Palmerston?) who said, ‘Circumstances, dear boy, circumstances’.

The question therefore still hangs in the air. Does Australia have or need a defence treaty with PNG, given that the bonds of friendship can quickly be jettisoned in favour of the personal perspective of those who are tasked to take up the sometimes ‘heavy’ burden of leadership. If we don’t, should we?

If there is only an implied arrangement, as Ross has questioned, is this a notion that could very easily be ‘white anted’ or more colloquially, ‘*mumuted’ by design or expediency?

If in fact there is only an implied arrangement, then history would suggest that implied arrangements can very quickly be sloughed off, depending on the ‘circumstances’ and perspectives at the time. So can treaties of course but at least they are a visible statement of intent.

*Mumut - PNG native rat that burrows into feed on root crops while being unseen, under the ground.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I think Billy Hughes was egged on by the US to oppose Japanese control of German New Guinea.

The US's main motivation was race-based.

This rankled the Japanese right up until WW2 and was a factor in their expansionism.

Australia was a pawn of US foreign policy then and continues in that role.

PNG as a military buffer for Australia is a convenient myth. The style of modern warfare doesn't allow for large scaled land based conflicts. At best PNG is a buffer for terrorism.

It is a US canon that it's wars are fought on other people's land and as an obedient puppy dog has been meekly accepted by Australia too.

We follow the Yanks into all their wars thanks to Menzies.

Paul Flanagan

Hi Ross - A useful overview of some of the history. I've included some other history below that indicates the commitment of Australian prime minister Billy Hughes to PNG despite the financial costs for strategic reasons.

Of course, if Britain's ally of Japan in WW1 had gained control of all German Pacific territories after WW1, Australia's history would have been very different!

On the broader arguments, I agree there is a strong strategic/defence element behind our aid to the Pacific and the relative importance of this element is increasing.

However, possibly the links are much more indirect than "create an implied obligation for the PNG government to allow unfettered access".

The failure to grant full immunity for Australian police in PNG in the early 2000s highlights one doesn't just need the executive arm of government on-side (the judicial arm declared the arrangement unconstitutional).

If China proposes to establish a port with visiting rights for its warships in, say, Rabaul in a decade's time (I know there is a volcano - but its the dormant underwater caldera which was so interesting for the Japanese) it is not clear that the current Australian aid program is the most strategic approach.

Pushing back on foreign influence will not be won on how much is spent but rather on whether Australian development cooperation supports values and institutions differentiated from a one-party state.

An Australian development cooperation program that supports democratic institutions, strengthened accountability and governance, and builds community and personal links would be one that better meets our strategic interests.

(This is an extract from my submission to the DFAT White Paper)

"At the end of World War 1, the expectation that the vanquished Germany would have its Pacific possessions allocated under the League of Nations to a British ally.

"This ally had declared war on Germany in 1914 and, as part of alliance agreements, this ally’s responsibilities included pursuing and destroying the German East Asiatic Squadron and protection of the shipping lanes for Allied commerce in the Pacific.

"The ally was Japan.

"In 1914, most German Pacific colonies were administered by German New Guinea except for German Samoa and the Kiautschou concession in China.

"During the Versailles Treaty negotiations in 1919, Australia’s Prime Minister Billy Hughes worked with US President Woodrow Wilson to deny Japan gaining all German colonies in the Pacific.

"Japan was successful in gaining former German Pacific colonies north of the equator but German New Guinea became a League of Nations mandate to Australia, and German Samoa to New Zealand.

"While there were significant financial and other obligations from taking on special responsibilities for German New Guinea, Billy Hughes argued these were justified by broader security interests.

"A prescient vision which should not be forgotten.

"The islands gained by Japan in the Pacific after World War One were important for Japan’s advances throughout Asia in World War Two (Kwajalein Atoll supported the attack on Pearly Harbour, Palau the invasion of the Philippines, Saipan the Battle of Guam, Truk for Japan taking Rabaul and the Gilberts – now Kiribati, Jaluit Atoll for seizure of Nauru).

"Consequences from not securing our region can be catastrophic.

"If Japan also gained German New Guinea, the outcomes along the Kokoda track would likely have been very different. A successful land-based invasion to Port Moresby would have been the very likely outcome and much earlier in the war. With such a base, WW2 could have been very different for Australia.

"And of course, British Papua was only a reluctant outcome after extensive lobbying by the colony of Queensland given fears of Russian imperial expansion.

"Australia’s current approach, possibly just “benign neglect” but possibly something worse, is of strategic concern as China extends its influence in the region.

"There is international concern about new Chinese bases in the South China Sea. An even greater concern would be for another foreign power to gain effective control of a major base in PNG, a former colony which is only 4 kilometres from Australia."

(Submission to DFAT Foreign Policy White Paper March 2017)

Lindsay F Bond

Briefing on whom is game, invites comment on which cohort(s) stealth accruement, is more of woeful enterprise.

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