Australia and its closest geographical neighbour Papua New Guinea (PNG), have agreed to a historic Bilateral Security Treaty (BST) that entwines both countries to each other and helps better secure the region.
In a joint statement on Jan. 12 by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and PNG Prime Minister James Marape, both leaders noted that the BST was a natural progression for two counties that share such a long history, close geographical boundaries, bonds of friendship and a common strategic outlook that involves a stable and peaceful Indo-pacific.
“As near neighbours, close friends, and equal partners, Papua New Guinea’s and Australia’s defence and security is deeply connected,” the prime ministers said.
“We share a mutual strategic interest in a safe, stable, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific. We have a proud history of working together in the interests of the region.”
Under the BST, Australia and PNG will look to cooperate on both traditional security areas, like defence and policing, and non-traditional areas, like climate change, cyber security, and economic development, which affect both nations’ strategic environments.
Speaking at a press conference after the announcement, Marape said that the Treaty reflected the shared regional outlooks of both countries.
“We live in a shared region, shared environment. Challenges are quite common,” Marape said. “So, without compromising the integrity of our own bilateral relationship with others, our shared interests will be encapsulated in these security arrangements.”
Meanwhile, Albanese said that due to Australia and PNG’s unique relationship, the security interests of the two nations are indivisible.
“By virtue of our geography, decisions taken in one country have an impact in the other,” Albanese said. “And that’s why our security interests, in my view, are indivisible. Indivisible. That’s why it makes sense for us to have that breadth of security cooperation across the board.”
PNG and Australia have deep historical ties going back to before European settlement in 1776 and are geographically close, with just 80 nautical miles (150 kilometres) between the coastlines of the two nations.
After parts of modern-day PNG became a British protectorate in 1884, it was administered by Australia for Britain. Then in 1905, the British territories were handed over to Australia, with the Australian government administration starting in 1906. In 1971, Australia moved to make the territory independent, and in 1975 it became an independent nation.
China’s Pacific Push Under Renewed Pressure
The BST comes at a time when Australia is initiating a pushback against China’s moves in the Pacific. In the past seven months, the Australian government led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has increased Australia’s security agreements with Pacific island nations, including new security pacts with Vanuatu and Fiji and security aid to Samoa, in the form of new naval vessels.
Australia has also increased aid packages to the Marshall Islands and Nauru, and provided a funding package to the Solomon Islands for the Pacific Games and deepened ties with Indonesia and East Timor.
Other Pacific nations like the U.S., New Zealand, and Japan have also been pushing back against Beijing’s Pacific expansion, which has seen Beijing already ink a security deal with the Solomon Islands that could allow it to establish military facilities at a key strategic location in the region.
Pivoting their foreign affairs focus to the region, and according to Rand Corporation’s senior defence analyst Derek Grossman, they are making headway.
Grossman argued in a post on The Rand Blog in 2022 said that Beijing is facing an uphill battle in its push into the region.
He notes that in 2022, there were numerous examples of multiple Pacific nations’ leaders stepping up their resistance to Beijing’s pushy diplomatic efforts.
For example, Tuvalu withdrew from a United Nations ocean conference because Beijing blocked Taiwan’s participation. When Beijing tried to push through its China–Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision through the Pacific Islands Forum, it generated intense criticism with Micronesian President David Panuelo calling the plan (pdf) “a smokescreen for a larger agenda” that would “ensure Chinese control of ‘traditional and nontraditional security’ of our islands.”
“The problem for China is that the United States, along with traditional neighbourhood friends, Australia and New Zealand, remain the dominant and likely preferred force, thus making it difficult for Beijing to break into the region and build its own influence,” Grossman said.
“It is incumbent on those who oppose Beijing in the Pacific to hone their engagement strategies to prioritize the existential challenge of climate change, pandemic recovery, and economic programs that align with Pacific Islander needs. Doing so should keep China comfortably in the rearview mirror.”
Australia and Papua Look to Seize Economic Opportunities to Grow Both Nations
Meanwhile, both Australia and PNG are looking to use the enhanced ties to bolster both nations economy, with the Australian prime minister noting that both nations lived in “the fastest growing region of the world in human history.”
“That presents an enormous opportunity for us if we’re capable of just seizing it,” he said.
Albanese is looking to increase trade and economic migration between the two countries.
“So, investing in capital and investing in labour,” he said.
“One of the ways that we can do that is by providing increased training opportunities in Australia for Papua New Guinea citizens, increased opportunities for people to get visas, come to Australia, get skills and make payments back here to PNG that assists with development.
“If we do that, we develop industries. Ministers today were talking about value-adding. It was a conversation that could have been had in Australia as well, how we not just export the agricultural produce and other produce which is here, and then import it back when greater value has been given, but how do we make the PNG economy more resilient?”
Echoing Albanese, Marape noted this would add value to the PNG economy and strengthen it.
“It is a known fact that if PNG is weak, it’s a weaker region and an exposure to Australia. So, it is in their interest also, as well as our own domestic interest, that the economy is stronger and has strength and going forward,” Marape said.
“And that realisation has matured under this Labor Government and Pangu governments. We are working towards strengthening our countries economies. Today, the greater conversation was about the economy than security and other issues.”