PERTH - On the second day of his recent visit to Australia, Papua New Guinea prime minister James Marape and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison both agreed to begin negotiations to develop a comprehensive strategic and economic partnership.
In a press conference following the meeting, Morrison announced $250 million worth of investment into electricity and $79 million worth of commitments in health programs.
The announcement that both leaders would negotiate deeper strategic and economic ties will be a welcome move for bilateral relations.
As seen in the graph, trade flows between the two countries has rapidly declined over the past decade.
In their meetings, however, neither side appeared to expand on how to boost the trade relationship, so it is likely that greater focus will be put on investment and security co-operation.
Increasing Australian investment in PNG and enhancing security ties will likely be the focus of the Morrison government as part of its broader strategy for engaging the Pacific.
In his 2018 media release on strengthening Australia’s commitment to the Pacific, Morrison said that his objective was to “build a Pacific region that is secure strategically, stable economically and sovereign politically”.
Increasing Australian investment and aid programs in Pacific Island countries while deepening security ties are two ways of achieving that goal.
In terms of building stable economies, significant funding is needed in high-priority areas such as infrastructure, education and health. In light of that, Australia has developed an aid program that has contributed US$7.7 billion from 2006 to 2016, a significantly higher figure than the aid contributions made by China (US$1.8 billion) and the United States (US$1.9 billion).
Since then, however, Australia’s aid program has shrunk, while China’s contributions appear to be growing. That has raised concerns among analysts about the growing influence of China and its intentions behind increasing aid and investment into the region.
In the long term, it will be difficult for Australia to keep up with China if it continues to pour money into the region.
Focusing on strategic partnerships at the bilateral level, therefore, could be more conducive to Australia’s efforts to counter China’s influence.
Steps have already been made on that front. In a statement to Reuters, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said Australia will develop a Pacific Support Force that is due to become operational within the year, with an objective to “strengthen capacity, resilience and interoperability throughout the region in areas such as security operations, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and peacekeeping”.
Additionally, the Australian government is also working on developing a training facility for police in PNG that will accept recruits from other Pacific countries.
As has been the case with the successful relationship between the Australian Federal Police and the Indonesian National Police, strengthening those institutional ties between Australia and Pacific Island countries will be a valuable step.