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PNG silence on military aid betrays confusion over alliances

Lombrum (AWM)
Lombrum naval base on Manus Island in 1949 (Australian War Memorial)

SCOTT WAIDE | Asia Pacific Report

PORT MORESBY - The global trade war between China and Western powers has reached new heights in the Pacific, and in particular in Papua New Guinea.

As the government of Peter O’Neill courts China on the one side of the bargaining table, receiving, aid and other benefits, PNG’s traditional military partner, Australia, is growing anxious.

Australian media has reported that their government is planning to establish a military base on Manus Island to counter the growing Chinese influence in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific.

The PNG government has been largely silent since Australia’s announcement.

On Saturday, when I contacted Defence Minister Solan Mirisim, he said PNG has been in negotiations with Australia for “a military base and a training facility on Manus”.

The plans by Australian have brought about concerns.

Jerry Singirok (Scott Waide)
Retired Major-General Jerry Singirok  - ‘Threat of being smothered by a behemoth of economic and military power  (Scott Waide)

A former PNG Defence Force commander, Major-General Jerry Singirok, says any decision by the Australians to place troops in PNG must have wide consultation as well as debate in parliament.

So far there has been none.

“Australia must be mindful that PNG is a sovereign nation. There has to be wide public consultation as well as debate in parliament because this is a strategic decision.

“Australia has neglected this region for so long. This issue has to be approached with diplomacy.”

Australia’s choice of Manus is of strategic military importance. The maritime corridor between Guam to the north and Manus to the south was used by the Japanese in World War II to reach the Pacific.

A possible Australian presence in Manus means they get to police the northern region. The move places PNG in the centre of a global power struggle between the US and its allies and China.

For PNG, things are a bit complicated. How does the government call China a threat and receive aid and development loans? And how does it support Australia’s military ambitions and still view China as a friend.

Another former PNGDF commander, feels Australia has to find a middle ground to deal with the trade war instead of placing military personnel in Papua New Guinea.

“China is not a threat,” says retired Commodore Peter Ilau, who also served as ambassador to Indonesia.

“We have to learn to work with China. We cannot respond with a show of military force,” he says.

Both former commanders agree that the threat of being smothered or overrun by a behemoth of an economic and military power are real.

China’s economic influence in Papua New Guinea extends to nearly all sectors.

In the 13-year period between 2005 and 2018, China has spent close to K12 billion in investments and aid in PNG. That is K3 billion short of Papua New Guinea’s annual budget of K15 billion.

Chinese money has been spent of monumental projects like buildings, transport infrastructure and energy projects in PNG and the Pacific.

But what concerns many in PNG is debt to China driven by loans and obligations and the possible takeover of state assets by a foreign power.

Scott Waide’s blog columns are frequently published by Asia Pacific Report with permission. He is also EMTV deputy news editor based in Lae

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