China's moves take shape in Torres Strait
09 July 2022
All the indications are that there is much more push and shove to come before we know whether China will have a tangible presence on the Torres Strait – and whose military and navy will occupy two proposed bases at Ihu
NOOSA - Reports in the Australian media that China is readying to build a military base at Ihu Papua New Guinea’s Gulf Province have been dismissed as “baseless and hype” by the Chinese embassy in Port Moresby.
China has reacted with anger to media reports that the developing Ihu Special Economic Zone at Kikori in Gulf Province will be a platform for a Chinese military base.
Its PNG ambassador, Zeng Fanhua, together with the PNG foreign minister, Soroi Eoe, recently shared a ground-breaking ceremony for the project, which is in Eoe’s Kikori Open electorate.
“We noted recently an Australian media report that China’s cooperation with PNG was aimed at building military base,” the embassy statement said.
“The report was completely baseless and hype with ulterior motives. (It) did not square with the facts and was irresponsible.”
PNG’s national executive council approved the project in 2019 and the prospect of investments in major resource projects by Papua LNG (liquefied natural gas) and Mayur Resources (industrial sands) are bringing hope to the population of one of PNG’s most impoverished provinces.
The construction of new roads, airstrips and other infrastructure, together with government seed funding to advance zone construction, has given a sense of realism to the project.
“The government has approved funding of up to K100 million, said project director Peter KenGemar.
“That’s K20 million annually to support the administration, the office and the work that we are doing.”
The Special Economic Zone Authority Act passed in 2020 allows substantial concessions and tax relief for 10-15 years for new companies using the economic zone.
The project has also attracted funding of K80 million from China allowing work to begin on roads from Petoe to Ihu and from Purari to Ihu as well as the rehabilitation of local airfields at Ihu (re-opened last year after 17 years) the recent re-opening of Baimuru airstrip after 14 years.
As well as attracting international investment, it is hoped the project will empower local Gulf businesses, especially those involved with fisheries and agriculture. The Kikori District also has 20% of PNG’s forests.
KenGemar calls these “low-hanging fruit that our people can get engaged along with local investors and other investors.”
In April ambassador Zeng and PNG foreign minister Aeo visited Ihu for the ground-breaking ceremony.
Zeng said PNG is China's “good friend, good brother and good partner and, since the establishment of diplomatic relations, the two sides had always treated each other as equals and respected each other
“As the largest developing country, China is willing to continue to share its own experience with PNG to achieve common development.”
Foreign minister Aeo said PNG hopes to learn from China's development experience and expressed gratitude for its active promote of the Ihu Special Economic Zone.
Representatives from the state-owned China Harbour Engineering Company attended the April event, which attracted some media attention in Australia.
The company is a subsidiary of the giant China Communications Construction Company, which owns John Holland in Australia and has been blacklisted by the USA.
According to the US Commerce Department, China Communications Construction was targeted “for their role in helping the Chinese military construct and militarise the internationally condemned artificial islands in the South China Sea.”
This provoked the embassy statement that “both China and PNG oppose third party interference and sabotage and will continue to conduct normal cooperation.”
But this left unaddressed an issue raised by a conceptual map of Ihu Special Economic Zone that showed a China-linked port and economic base.
These are clearly designated ‘military base’ (top left of schema) and ‘naval base’ (lower left)
Chinese involvement in the Ihu Special Economic Zone, together with its interest in Daru fisheries, potentially give it a significant strategic position just across the waters of the Torres Strait from Australia.
All the indications are that there is much more push and shove to come before we know whether China will have a tangible presence on the Torres Strait – and whose military and navy will occupy the two proposed bases at Ihu.
Sources: Geoff Wade, The Diplomat, Embassy of China in PNG, Business Advantage PNG, Jesselyn Xie Meixiang via Twitter
Two pithy sayings come to mind;
'Where there's a will there's a way! and Follow the money trail!'
I think several or many old-timers made similar remarks after Kennecott got BHP interested in mining the mountain with a golden cap ie Ok Tedi. I recall there were many who preferred the construction of a highway to the gold that would be an extension of the Okuk Highway. This was dismissed as being too costly and would have been through very difficult terrain. Today we are seeing the road from Tabubil to Telefomin being constructed.
(There is an incredible video on YouTube showing the construction of a road the Indonesian got courtesy of Freeport's Grasberg mine. Unbelievable feat of engineering.)
Having huge financial resources BHP ignored the wisdom of experienced and decided to go for the Fly River being its major supply route. That of course has its own delta problems with the shifting mud and sands. Secondly just like the Aramia River (aka Debili) at Kawito in the Gogodala where I lived for some years there is a bar across the Fly downstream of Kiunga which they use as their port. So as they had been told: some dry seasons the larger sized vessels would not be able to navigate over it. There have been several years when this has happened since the 1984 start of production.
A query for my readers. I used a small coastal/river vessel to occasionally move cargo from my bulk store at Kawito to Pangoa in Lake Murray, Suki or Kaviananga near Obo on the Fly and up the Mai Kassa to reach my store at Arufe.
The Captain and owner I understood was Derek. I would like to know what was the boat's name and what was Derek's surname and any bio anyone knows of him. I would expect many Western-hands and old colleagues like Dic 'Skunge' Randolph would know him.
Finally I wasn't sure of the spelling of the river to Arufe and searched for it. I was linked (as usual) to an interesting article of to the Royal Geographical Society titled:
18750907 Discovery of the Mai-Kassa, or Baxter River, New Guinea by Ocatvius C Stone FRGS at www.docslib.org/doc/10680256/discovery-of-the-mai-kassa-or-baxter-river-new-guinea-author-s-octavius-c
Worth an enjoyable read and full of little snippets about a voyage of the SS Ellengowan owned by the New Guinea Mission (branch of London Missionary Society)
Posted by: arthur williams | 11 July 2022 at 07:59 PM
Harry Topham is quite right about the nature of the waters in the Gulf. They can be very treacherous for the unwary.
Like Harry I have experienced running aground and being stranded on a sand bar, in my case at the entrance to the Turama River.
As I recall the Captain concerned was very experienced but still managed to get caught out by unexpected tidal movements and the endlessly shifting mud banks that are a feature of Gulf waters.
It nevertheless is possible for large vessels to navigate the Gulf's waters provided they stick closely to those areas where the water is consistently deep enough.
From a naval perspective a significant draw back is that freedom of manoeuvre is seriously constrained until the waters some miles from the coast are reached.
I do not know the inshore waters around Ihu but would expect that they will be as treacherous as those in the rest of the Gulf.
I therefore would not care to be navigating a large vessel in the Gulf waters without a very knowledgeable and experienced local Captain to advise me.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 11 July 2022 at 12:45 PM
As anyone who has lived in the Gulf region of Papua would be well aware, those water are pretty damned shallow along most of the coastline and are regarded as being the graveyard of many ships past.
Got stuck once in the early morn on a sandbank off the mouth of the Kikoro River with huge waves smashing over the stern as the skipper on the government work boat tried to ease his craft off the obstacle.
Thought we were all doomed as I and my fellow passenger trod across the waterlogged cabin to seek refuge in the wheelhouse only to find the skipper, worried that his passengers might panic, had instructed his crew to lock the stern door.
Quite an ordeal as we sat on our bunks waiting to hear the final burst of power as the boat finally extracted itself from its stranglehold and returned to the deeper channels running along the coastline.
Now that skipper had been plying those water for well over 20 years yet was easily misled by the ever changing push and shove of those treacherous waters of the Gulf.
Whoever is thinking of taking naval boats down that way might have to give serious thought to undertaking some massive sand dredging operations.
Posted by: Harry Topham | 11 July 2022 at 10:45 AM
To take up Arthur's point about FPSO ships and the suitability of Gulf waters for such vessels, I was involved in a hydrological survey of Port Romilly conducted in 1970.
The survey ship upon which I was based was essentially tasked with following a defined grid pattern up, down and across Port Romilly, mostly to determine its depth.
This quite tedious task took several days but, at the end of it, the surveyors had a detailed 'map' of the undersea surface of Port Romilly.
The results were unequivocal, being that it could easily be traversed by even very large vessels. It was, as I recall, technically possible to anchor a large vessel quite close to the mouth of the Pie River which leads to Baimuru.
Given that Australian Petroleum Company (APC) had drilled and capped several gas wells on the upper reaches of the Pie River, it was eminently feasible to pipe gas down the river to an anchored vessel.
Obviously, I do not know the modern economics of doing this but it seems to me that the decision to not do so could have been easily influenced by greasing a few palms.
I guess we will never know but there are reasonable grounds to openly wonder why the apparently obvious was not done.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 10 July 2022 at 09:43 PM
There was a missed opportunity for PNG to develop the Gulf Province when the second LNG project was being discussed.
The provincial government was told in no uncertain terms that the province must have a stand-alone LNG operation, not just sending the product to Moresby quicksands that gobble up so much of PNG's wealth.
The local peoples' views were completely ignored and the public relations boys in Waigani managed to get for themselves the second LNG. It's called Papua LNG although the natural name would have been Gulf LNG.
The oilygarchs dismissed out of hand the feasibility of having it in Gulf Province. Their exspurts told us it was impossible for FPSO (floating production storage and offloading) vessels to be used in the Papuan Gulf.
Yet there are approximately 300 such ships operating throughout the world. Many in dangerous environments:
1) BW Pioneer, built and operated by BW Offshore, is anchored at a depth of 2,600 metres in the Gulf of Mexico.
2) In the storm prone Norwegian Sea, Aker Solutions for BP Norge can handle about 19 million cubic metres of gas per day (670,000,000 cu ft/d) and 13,500 cubic metres per day of oil. It has an 80 km long gas export pipe (data from Wikipedia).
The Gallic and Texan oil men knew far more of than the PNG government's negotiating team.
Thus Moresby continues to defy the Constitution's demand that development shall be spread equally throughout the nation and, in line with internationally accepted demands that local people have their voices heard.
If China can be a better partner for development than the PNG or Australian governments, then the Gulf people should be allowed to use the offered assistance.
This would help develop the long neglected region of mud and swamps.
I did a few years at Baimuru and, as agent for Douglas Airways, know how important the airfield was for the people of the district.
Yet then governor Chris Haiveta and his mates allowed it to be disused for 14 years (I note that Ihu's strip was closed for 19 years).
Shame on the elites who at this very moment have twitches in their arses wondering if they have managed to get back on the gravy train to Waigani.
Posted by: Arthur Williams | 10 July 2022 at 06:42 PM
I could not help but note that the Ihu and Baimuru airstrips was unused, until comparatively recently.
I would guess this was attributable to an unwillingness or inability to meet the cost of maintaining these assets.
Whilst posted to Baimuru I spent a few hours each month mowing the strip and doing low level maintenance tasks. It was not arduous, just a bit tedious.
However, it required a working tractor and slasher and a bit of diesel fuel. A part time tractor operator and a few thousand kina would keep the strip open but perhaps this was beyond the provincial government or they thought that the limited traffic did not justify the cost of maintenance.
As I recall, pre-independence PNG the government was the main customer for the airlines.
Tourists were incredibly rare owing to the high cost of travel and accommodation in those days, not to mention the health risks inherent in being there - malaria, infectious hepatitis, dengue fever, miscellaneous gut complaints and exotic skin diseases not to mention various biting insects and sharp-edged fauna.
Perhaps things have or will change but, like Phil, I am sceptical that this current proposal will ever come to fruition unless the People's Liberation Army wills it so.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 10 July 2022 at 05:56 PM
The Gulf Province has seen a long line of fantastic proposals that have never seen the light of day. Ask senior Papua New Guinean journalist and blogger Big Pat Levo.
The last proposal I encountered was a massive Chinese oil palm project, for which I was asked to do a social mapping study and which I politely turned down.
I wouldn't be holding my breath on this latest idea, nor on the Daru proposal.
I was last in Ihu in 2014. You probably would have recognised it then Chris because nothing seemed to have changed since before 1975, except the ADC's house had been totalled and pillaged and there was nothing left except a set of steel uprights on a cement pad.
The magnificent raintree beside the council chambers was still there and probably still is.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 10 July 2022 at 03:52 PM
Paul, you are right that it rains a great deal in Ihu, as it does throughout most of the Gulf Province. I would expect that there would be more than 200 inches (5 metres) of rain each year.
Also, very large tidal movements are normal in the Gulf, so the mooring of ships is an exercise to be undertaken with considerable care.
The terrain is, as you might expect, very muddy, so any road system will have to be built with an enormous drainage system.
Also, I would imagine that material for the road base would need to be brought in by barge, which would be an expensive exercise.
To what extent all this may influence the design and construction of the proposed new development is something for engineers and hydrologists to contemplate.
In my experience of the Gulf, constant maintenance is required to keep the built environment functioning as intended.
Failure to do this means that the natural environment begins to reassert itself pretty quickly.
The local people spent thousands of years perfecting a way of living that took into account the vagaries of their natural environment, whereas modern structures and work practices tend to defy or attempt to control nature, so it will be fascinating to see how this contest works out.
The Chinese may discover that it is much easier to plan this sort of development than to carry it out.
Still, they have built military bases on what were little more than rocky outcrops in the South China Sea so they should not be underestimated.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 10 July 2022 at 03:01 PM
Hey Chris, doesn't Ihu get 7 or 8 meters of rain a year and isn't the water table just under the surface?
Anyone who intends build there should check out their water wings and rubber boots. The tidal surges were also pretty high as someone told me.
I wonder if the plan might be to generate some enthusiasm and then decide to set up shop elsewhere, once the locals are hooked on the idea?
Posted by: Paul Oates | 09 July 2022 at 04:33 PM
What many either don't know or choose not to believe is that the Chinese government is actually the Chinese Communist Party and all members of any Chinese government operation are members of the CCP.
That translates into any contract or understanding (either official or unofficial loan or deal), made with China is an agreement to accept that nothing is done or funded that doesn't fit into the CCP policy of achieving world dominance or as they might choose to say it, achieving their rightful place in the world.
If PNG or the Solomons or anyone else thinks they are or will be an equal partner and won't fall into the loan trap only has to look at places like Sri Lanka and see where their economy ended up and who now owns and controls the previously CCP funded projects.
There are none so blind as those who will not see!
Posted by: Paul Oates | 09 July 2022 at 02:43 PM
I worked as a kiap in the Gulf Province for two years (mid 1969 to mid 1971).
It was a very impoverished province then as it is now.
For this reason, any major development project is likely to be welcomed by the local people.
However, no Chinese backed development comes without strings attached and port facilities built primarily for cargo vessels can be just as easily used by military vessels.
Ihu occupies a strategically significant section of the Gulf of Papua, being adjacent to Australia's northern border. This will be exercising the minds of Australia's defence establishment which (correctly) regards any Chinese commercial initiative as necessarily being part of the long term strategic ambitions of China.
The identification of areas designated for army and navy bases in the plans for the new development is inconsistent with declarations that there is no military aspect to it.
Lying, obfuscation and diversion is part of the well established Chinese strategy to attempt to confuse or misdirect its putative enemies as to its real intentions. What is being said about this development clearly fits that category.
This strategy has been successfully applied in the South China Seas where China repeatedly and vociferously denied that it was building military bases on contested atolls which we now know was always a lie.
In a similar way, the Russians successfully deceived and misdirected most of the rest of the world about its intentions towards Ukraine, persistently maintaining that it was not planning to invade that country until the moment it actually did so.
So successful was this strategy that even when the CIA and British Intelligence Service repeatedly warned Europe about what was to happen most of its leadership simply refused to believe it. They thought, wrongly, that Vladimir Putin was a 'rational actor' who would not embark upon such a risky and costly endeavour.
Thus when trying to interpret the intentions of the world's authoritarian powers it is important to understand the nature and intent of their strategic lying, which is part of what military planners call the 'non-kinetic warfare' which these powers have been using for some years now. This includes cyber warfare, economic warfare and the use of bribery to subvert and then exert control over susceptible political leaders.
This is why Australia has viewed developments in the Solomons with such concern. Deals done with China, especially if accompanied by politicians acquiring sudden and unexplained wealth, will inevitably be part of a non kinetic warfare strategy.
While I would hope that the proposed development is to the benefit of the people of Ihu and the Gulf more generally, my fear is that they will come to rue the day that Chinese developers effectively took over control of a significant part of their land.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 09 July 2022 at 12:45 PM