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Old 14-03-2003, 09:19 PM
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WHY PAPUA NEW GUINEA MATTERS

Quote:
Given the increased availability of and resort to arms, the risk that PNG will descend into anarchy is high.
The demise of Papua New Guinea does not excite much interest in Australia, which is more preoccupied with Southeast Asia. It now takes a disaster like the Aitape tsunami in 1998 to impact on the public consciousness.

Australians’ response to that emergency demonstrated that there is still some goodwill towards PNG, particularly among those who lived or worked there after World War II. But the people-to-people links that once characterised relations at both a formal and informal level are not as strong between emerging generations. Australian prime ministerial
representation has been absent from a number of South Pacific Forums.

Many Australian companies now focus on the larger, more affluent and more stable Asian markets. Fewer journalists cover PNG, and those that do report that it is hard to get their stories into newspapers. Their editors blame dwindling public and business interest.

This relative neglect reflects changed international circumstances and domestic priorities. Yet Papua New Guinea is a substantial neighbour. It is by far the largest of the Pacific island countries, with a land area nearly twice that of New Zealand.

Its population is already a quarter the size of Australia’s and is expected nearly to double by 2025. It is a billion dollar market for Australian investment and exports. Australia has a 52% share of total imports, although China and ASEAN countries are challenging this position.

In recent years, PNG has been the only Pacific country to enjoy a small trade surplus with Australia, due mainly to crude petroleum exports. Australia remains PNG’s principal source of bilateral aid,26 with the annual budget of over $300 million making up one third of total Australian country aid.

History has demonstrated that the security of PNG and Australia are inextricably linked. The 60th anniversary of the Kokoda Trail battles last year commemorating the defeat of Japanese invasion forces in PNG during World War II is a reminder that its territorial integrity is directly related to the defence of continental Australia.

The large amounts of aid that successive Australian governments have poured into PNG go back to a longstanding policy of ‘strategic denial’: making certain that other countries potentially hostile to Australian interests do not gain a foothold in the territory that stands between us and Asia.

It is not necessary, however, for a state to threaten Australia militarily (as in 1942) to cause serious security problems. Should PNG’s downward spiral continue so that it unarguably becomes a ‘failed state’, it could attract transnational criminals, people smugglers, drug and arms traffickers—and terrorists. PNG can neither effectively monitor its land and sea borders nor control parts of its territory, making it relatively easy for such groups to slip in undetected and use the country as a base
for operations or point of entry into Australia.

Australia and PNG are separated at their closest points by just a few kilometres (see map opposite). A growing drugs-for-arms trade across the Torres Strait is of increasing concern to both governments. Firearms are sold on to Highlanders and raskol gangs, thus contributing to the corrosive effect of escalating crime and violence in PNG. Drugs—mainly marijuana (‘New Guinea Gold’)—end up on Australian
streets.

The Torres Strait has also been used by illegal third country immigrants to Australia, who arrive in PNG after crossing its porous land border with the Indonesian province of West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya). These problems are manageable for now,27 but could change with little warning.

The risk that Islamist terrorists may use PNG as a haven cannot be dismissed in light of last year’s Bali bombing. PNG’s strategic
backwater status and institutional instability could provide new opportunities to exploit the weakest link.

Terrorists could pay PNG’s criminal gangs to assist them with preparations for attacks on Australian soil or against Australian civilians and assets in PNG. A cash-strapped PNG government could resort to selling passports and visas to the highest bidder, or terrorists may use PNG as a flag of convenience to register ships that transport operatives and equipment.28 Such scenarios indicate that internal
developments in PNG have direct security implications for Australia.

The ability of Australian authorities and their PNG counterparts to work together effectively on these issues is limited while the central government is unstable and weak, and security forces are rundown and demoralised. Australia has spent over a half a billion dollars since independence on assistance to the PNGDF—the largest allocation of defence funds to any single country—while an AusAID project to strengthen the police force has been running for over a decade. Yet these key state institutions remain under-resourced, poorly equipped and ill-disciplined.

Until recently, there had not been any PNGDF patrols of its land border with the Indonesian province of West Papua in a decade because of resource shortages. If the ‘Free Papua’ campaign for independence were to spill over the border into neighbouring and culturally similar PNG, Australia could find itself caught in the middle between its defence ties with PNG and maintaining good relations with Indonesia.

Civilian command over the PNGDF remains uncertain, as the 1997 Sandline crisis and the 2001 mutiny demonstrated (see p.8). The outnumbered police force has lost control of large parts of Port Morseby and major towns, and is outgunned by heavily armed groups in some regions.

A recent disturbing trend is the theft or disappearance of weapons from police and military armouries, indicating that some
unscrupulous officers have formed associations with criminal gangs and other groups outside the law. Given the increased availability of and resort to arms, and the weakness of state security forces, the risk that PNG will descend into anarchy is high.

Australia will not be able to ignore any fallout. There are still over 7,000 expatriate Australians living in PNG. Australian governments increasingly accept consular responsibility for their citizens overseas.

If internal security in PNG worsens, the Australian Defence Force might have to be deployed to evacuate not only Australian nationals but also possibly citizens of other countries.

It is likely that many Papua New Guineans would want to follow the exodus, either as legal migrants or refugees.

Health services in Queensland are already under pressure from PNG nationals who have crossed the Torres Strait to access better care.

Given the high rates of HIV infection and other contagious diseases in PNG, uncontrolled people movement is not only a health issue but also a security risk, however unintentional.
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