WARWICK QLD – Here is more than an interesting fact. This is a concrete reality of potential international importance.
There is no single border in the Torres Strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea.
Instead there are four separate and overlapping boundaries: the seabed boundary; the land boundary; the fishing boundary; and the cultural boundary.
The seabed boundary runs more or less through the middle of the Strait from east to west and defines who gets what from the seabed or below it – should oil or other minerals, be discovered.
The land boundary extends right across the Torres Strait from mainland Australia so that every island in the Strait is part of Australia except for Daru, capital of PNG’s Western Province, and neighbouring Bristow Island.
The fishing boundary includes all the Australian islands but excludes Daru and Bristow.
And the cultural boundary excludes the Thursday Island group (Australian) but otherwise extends right across the Strait to include all other islands including Daru and Bristow and also the adjacent coast of PNG.
The cultural boundary protects the traditional visiting rights of Papua New Guineans and Torres Strait Islanders who inhabit this zone.
These people, with a shared heritage embracing thousands of years, have free access to this entire territory without immigration, customs, quarantine or health controls.
These details – especially those relating to people’s movements within the cultural boundary – can be of great significance to both PNG and Australia.
But in the current warmish going on hottish geopolitical climate, proposing the mere presence of a Chinese enterprise on Daru, let alone a city as has been speculated, is likely to cause extreme mischief for Australia.
Phil Fitzpatrick (Remote Daru could be a regional flashpoint), John Greenshields (Reflections on the borderland dilemma) and Binoy Kampmark (China, PNG & Australia’s backyard blues) have all written fascinating pieces in PNG Attitude on this issue in recent times.
And I must mention the many comments from readers that accompanied these explorations.
One element of the mischief that could be triggered by a formal Chinese presence in Daru is that, although the Kiwai people of Daru will have free access to the Australian islands that start nearby and extend across the Strait, the Chinese will not.
But the Chinese enterprise envisioned for Daru is unlikely to be confined to the island alone, after all, there is little resource there except mud and nice people.
The clear aim would be to expand in all directions, and any expansion of Chinese into the Torres Strait would be a nightmare for Australia in terms of quarantine, illegal immigration, trafficking of various kinds, resource exploitation and, heaven forfend, strategic positioning.
Although with Daru 1,400 km from Darwin there would probably be no joy rides across the Arafura Sea for Chinese tourists to inspect the Port of Darwin, leased by a Chinese company for 99 years that has only got seven years on the clock.
China’s current restrictions of various kinds on Australia’s barley, lobsters, wine, coal, copper, beef, timber and wheat would seem like small fry if the Torres Strait came into play.
If China really wanted to cause mischief to Australia right on our doorstep and chose Daru as a bit of an investment destination, they would have really chosen the right place for some high level knuckle gnawing.
Defence minister Peter Dutton wouldn’t need to invent a drama, he’d have a real one to get his teeth stuck into.
Geoffrey Dabb writes on the Torres Strait Treaty:
Next, without further disturbing sovereignty over land areas, the treaty aimed at an equitable division of sea and seabed resources.
In the northern part of the strait, outside the three-mile territorial seas of Boigu, Saibai and Dauan, PNG has resources jurisdiction over the areas marked ‘P’.
In the area marked A/P, Australia has jurisdiction over swimming fisheries and PNG has jurisdiction over seabed resources including sedentary species (e.g. coral, clams and crays).
Further south is the seabed boundary, which divides the resources of Warrior Reef.
Keith Jackson writes on Geoffrey Dabb:
Geoffrey Dabb arrived in Papua New Guinea in 1962, aged 23, from a Melbourne criminal law practice. "His trial expertise took him on court circuits," writes Donald Denoon in his book, A Trial Separation (free download here), mentioning that, in one day at Wabag, Dabb conducted six trials for murder.
In 1971, with independence not announced but approaching at speed, Dabb, by now a PNG foreign affairs official, became part of a small national border negotiating team dealing with Indonesia and Australia.
"It was Papua New Guinea who were pressing for an early resolution quite strongly, as soon as possible, even from before independence,” Dabb told Radio New Zealand in 2015. “And I have no doubt in my mind that it was, in the circumstances, quite a fair arrangement.
"Super-imposed on the jurisdiction lines governing the sea and sea-bed jurisdiction were arrangements that guaranteed access for traditional purposes for the traditional inhabitants over the whole area; and when it came to commercial access, there was an arrangement for a sharing of them which I think was fairly equitable from both points of view."
Now much better known for his expertise as a Canberra ornithologist, and especially for his photography in the field, Geoffrey and I have something unusual in common. And it is literally not birds.
In 1966, my first wife Sue and I had our wedding party at the Badili home of journalist Don Hogg and his then wife Gail, who worked with me in the Education Department's publications unit. In 1968, I have just learned, the same venue was used for the same purpose by Geoffrey and his new bride.