| Sydney Morning Herald
SYDNEY - In late March, the details of a security deal between the Solomon Islands and China were leaked, sending shockwaves through the Pacific region.
A month later, the Papua New Guinea government launched a bid to enter a team in the Australian national rugby league.
The first event caused concern and dismay in political circles; the second is an opportunity that should be seized by the Australian government.
As the Pacific’s largest and most complex nation, PNG will have a significant influence over Australia’s geopolitical future.
Geographically, it is the gateway to Asia. Economically, it is a resource-industry powerhouse.
China understands this, and has increasingly courted PNG by generously funding natural resources, telecommunications and infrastructure projects.
But to Australia, PNG is so much more than a strategic player in the broader Asia-Pacific geopolitical theatre.
We are connected by a shared history, starting with the land-bridge that existed between our nations until 10,000 years ago, a bridge crossed by the people who became the first Australians.
More recently, we spilled blood together during World War II in places such as Kokoda, Lae and Wewak.
PNG was under Australian colonial rule until 1975. And while the colonial era had many dark chapters, many Papua New Guineans and Australians are still able to look back fondly on a time during which the modern PNG identity was forged.
Yet these bonds are fading. Following Australia’s deeply flawed departure in 1975, PNG was not given the tools to effectively manage its transition to sovereignty.
Since that time Australia has consistently failed to rekindle the relationship, despite an annual aid budget for PNG of about $500 million (K1.2 billion).
Australian assistance aimed at much needed legal and government reform has been perceived as eroding PNG’s deeply rooted wantok system of kinship, and the PNG government has become increasingly receptive to more tangible infrastructure spending from other countries.
As Sean Dorney lamented in his 2016 Lowy Institute Paper, The Embarrassed Colonialist, the importance of the Australia-PNG relationship has faded from the national consciousness, and we have allowed our precious people-to-people links to all but disappear.
The situation is ripe for increased Chinese government influence in PNG.
Recent events in the Solomons will have the Australian government acutely concerned to mitigate that influence.
This is where PNG’s NRL bid comes in. Rugby league is PNG’s national sport, and the participation and passion is authentic, grassroots and widespread.
The PNG Rugby League Digicel Cup is well-attended, the PNG Hunters play in the Queensland Cup, and the NRL and State of Origin are massively popular at all levels of society.
The PNG bid aims to have a team in the NRL by 2025. Australia should aggressively support the bid, if necessary via a financial commitment that would amount to a small fraction of the current aid budget.
There are benefits to both sides. There would be significant opportunities for infrastructure spending and jobs growth in PNG.
In time, Australian awareness of PNG as a tourist destination would grow; it has some of the most extraordinary natural wonders, and most fascinating and diverse cultures, in the world.
The initial capital investment by PNG would be large, but the economic benefits could be huge.
For the NRL, a PNG side would open up a pathway in the Pacific, further expanding the player pool and elevating the game in the region.
But most importantly, the people-to-people links that have been fading since the 1970s could be revitalised.
Deep connections would be forged between Australians and Papua New Guineans through a shared love of rugby league, and would contribute to fostering a bilateral relationship of true partnership.
Australia may not be able to match its rivals when it comes to winning influence in the Pacific through infrastructure investment or granting loans.
But we can build deep bonds across time and space by looking our Pacific neighbours in the eye, and inviting them to share their passion with us on the footy field.
Australia should strongly support the PNG government NRL bid, and set the tone for our relationship into the 21st century.
Dr Stephen Brancatisano is a Western Sydney doctor and a former Australian diplomat in Papua New Guinea