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05 April 2018


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Chris Overland

In his article Phil has reflected upon the relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea, wondering whether we remain true friends to those who were, until comparatively recently, subject to our colonial rule.

In his comments, Chips Mackellar quotes Henry Kissinger as saying that “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” In doing so, Kissinger was repeating the dictum first annunciated by Lord Palmerston, Prime Minister of Britain who, in a speech to Parliament in 1848, bluntly stated that “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

Seldom has this aphorism been more true in human affairs, when we have the three major powers of our era, being Russia, China and the USA, openly competing for power and influence across the globe.

In an uncanny and disturbing parallel with the late 19th century, each country is being led by a person convinced of their natural right to impose their will and pursue their national interests without much regard to the rights or interests of others. They are engaged in what they see as an existential struggle to dominate on a global basis and will defer to no-one.

For Russia, it is a question of recovering the influence and authority of the USSR which Vladimir Putin believes was unnecessarily and foolishly given up by his predecessors. His view then, as it is now, was that while the USSR needed reform, it did not require wholesale dismemberment. His actions over the last 20 years show his willingness to seize effective control of what he regards as natural parts of greater Russia, including using military force to do so.

Meanwhile, China is determined to recover what it regards as its proper position in the world after over a century of humiliations at the hands of both western and eastern imperialists. Like Putin, Xi Jinping is a modern autocrat and is using his power to pursue what he clearly believes is China’s destiny, which is to be the paramount power in its historic sphere of influence. This includes all of South East Asia, the Pacific and even the Indian Ocean.

In America, the least able and insightful President in at least a century has come to power with the declared intention to make America great again. It is now evident that this willful, ignorant, belligerent and unstable President intends to wield the powers of his office in an effort to force others to submit to his will. This, of course, they will not willingly do.

This, in broad terms, is the context within which Australia and PNG need to frame their current and future relations. Sure, past and current friendships between its peoples is important but, as Kissinger and Palmerston stated, they will not determine the policy positions of government. The national interest alone will matter.

Right now, neither nation seems able to devise a sensible long term policy position based upon shared mutual interests. It is not even clear if they have a shared view about the international struggle for power and influence that I have mentioned, much less any idea about how to position themselves in that struggle.

PNG seems to be falling into the orbit of China, drawn into its grip by becoming a debtor nation to it. This is not obviously a policy decision driven by a clear eyed assessment of the facts. It seems to simply be an expression of a desire to secure more cheap money and other resources from a willing lender.

To the extent that Australia has any culpability for this unwholesome development, it lies in its apparent long term neglect of the need to nurture a strong and influential relationship with the PNG government. It is almost as if, having launched PNG on its way and provided a bit of ongoing cash, successive Australian governments have not felt it necessary to do much more.

There appears to have been a misplaced sense of confidence that PNG would, somehow, muddle through and become a reasonably competently governed and moderately wealthy state.

This has not been the experience of most post-colonial states except perhaps in South East Asia, where countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines appear to be on a sustainable economic trajectory even if their governance arrangements sometimes fall well short of the democratic ideals espoused by Australia.

Certainly, the various tiny Pacific states have almost uniformly struggled to attain economic viability and overcome serious deficiencies in their governance arrangements. PNG appears to be no exception to this general rule.

It may be an unfair observation, but it is not obviously the case that the relationship between Australia and PNG has been more than a peripheral consideration in Australian diplomacy for a long time.

Somewhat belatedly, it seems that the current government has awoken to the implications of PNG slipping into the role of a tributary or vassal state to China. Quite how it is going to forestall this, much less reverse the established trend, I simply do not know.

My sense is that PNG has already compromised itself so significantly that it cannot escape falling into either the orbit of China or, alternatively, becoming an impoverished mendicant state dependent upon handouts from Australia and some other western powers.

This seems likely to be the dismal fruit of 45 years of squandered wealth and opportunities.

I suppose that it is still technically possible for PNG to reassert its sovereignty and reclaim control of the assets it has so freely conferred upon others but it takes an heroic sense of optimism to believe this is likely to occur.

Bernard Corden

Dear Paul,

It reminds me of the time Bob Hawke went on an official state visit to Ottawa and the streets were festooned with NZ flags:

Philip Fitzpatrick

I forgot about Henry and his dictum Chips.

I know quite a few people like America - no friends, just interests. Unfortunately, a couple are relatives.

Remember the seminal book, 'How to Win Friends and Influence People'? Same mercenary outlook.

Chips Mackellar

Unless Phil, our current government and any future Australian government follows the dictum of Henry Kissinger who said "America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests." If so, then Australia also has no permanent friends either, only interests, which does not make PNG a friend to Australia, only an interest. This would explain the failures in the Australia - PNG relationship you mentioned.

Paul Oates

Just in case someone was watching and missed last night's mini extravaganza that is obviously an attempt to try and emulate the razzmatazz of what the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games is now expected to demonstrate, we were again presented with an appalling gap in the knowledge of the TV commentator.

During the opening ceremony of the last Commonwealth Games in Brisbane I missed a lot of the ceremony on TV while trying to contact the ABC. A certain commentator then said: 'What a pity Australia doesn't have words to our national anthem and we could sing them like all the other country's team were doing?'

So again last night, we were presented first with a conflict between an ex premier who departed in a cloud and then returned as if nothing happened to 'manage' the games and a new premier who wanted to boast about her state. Not very edifying one might say. Yet everyone was fortunate that any gloom didn't extend to the weather as it didn't rain on the parade as predicted.

When the Coomonwealth nations that were grouped in geographic locations were introduced to the crowd, the announcer trumpeted: "...and now, Australia's closest neighbour .... New Zealand!"

If anyone in the PNG government had enough intestinal fortitude I'd image they would to have immediately rung the PNG PM and asked why he wasn't trying to contact his Australian equivalent and giving him and his Foreign Minister a piece of his mind. They could have also observed that the the Queensland premier and her nominated crew should have at least understood local geography, especially considering Queensland has a common boarder with PNG and is not a three hour flight away across the Tasman Sea.

So are we at 'The Attitude' the only one's trying to stand up for our PNG friends?

Hello..... is there anyone listening?

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