The Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) will boost collaboration with the Australian and United States militaries under new security agreements, including through bilateral exercises and joint maritime patrols, leaders said in mid-October 2022.
A proposed treaty between Australia and Papua New Guinea would bring cooperation “even closer, where we are having defense personnel working alongside each other more,” Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles, who also serves as deputy prime minister, said during a visit to the island nation’s capital, Port Moresby.
“The defense relationship is one of the strengths of the bilateral relationship, but this is really playing to that strength,” Marles said, according to Reuters.
He noted that most PNGDF officers already receive some training in Australia. Additionally, the nations’ armed forces conduct joint exercises such as the annual Kumul Exchange in Queensland, Australia, part of the bilateral Olgeta Warrior training series, according to the Australian Defence Force. (Pictured: Australian Army and Papua New
Guinea Defence Force personnel conduct weapons training during Kumul Exchange in Queensland, Australia, in October 2021.)
The proposed agreement is further evidence of stepped-up engagement by Indo-Pacific allies and partners amid persisting concern over the People’s Republic of China’s attempts to gain influence with Pacific Island Countries (PICs). Such disquiet was highlighted in April 2022 when the Solomon Islands signed a security pact with Beijing that allows Chinese forces to be deployed to the Solomons to quell unrest. The largely secretive deal raised the specter of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army establishing a naval base in the Solomons, a prospect denied by both nations.
The day Marles arrived in Papua New Guinea, the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force announced that 32 of its officers had traveled to China for a month to train and to better understand Chinese culture, Reuters reported.
Marles, meanwhile, welcomed the U.S.’s heightened focus on the region, including a new ship rider agreement that allows PNGDF personnel to patrol their nation’s waters from aboard U.S. Coast Guard and military vessels, the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier newspaper reported.
Papua New Guinea’s exclusive economic zone is about 3.1 million square kilometers. Given its vast territorial waters and limited resources, the nation of about 9.5 million people faces significant challenges in combatting illegal fishing, human and drug smuggling, and other maritime crimes, Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko said, according to the Post-Courier.
Tkatchenko said the agreement is set to be finalized when a new U.S. embassy opens in Port Moresby in December 2022. “This will also connect us to the [U.S.] satellite system where all boats in our waters around PNG will be observed and monitored from satellites to allow us to know who is fishing in our waters, who is taking out our fish, who are the illegal logging ships taking logs to their country without the proper process and so on,” he said.
Tkatchenko said discussions began during the U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House in late September 2022. As part of the summit, the U.S. unveiled a Pacific strategy that, among other measures, calls for U.S. $600 million in funding over 10 years to support economic development and promote climate resilience efforts for Pacific fisheries.
Marles noted that the U.S. has ship rider agreements with other PICs. “We’ve been very encouraging of those relations for a long time now,” he said, “and we’re completely open to exploring other ways in which we can leverage the existing traffic and movement that occurs through the Pacific to make sure that it occurs in a way that can better provide surveillance against illegal fishing.
“Certainly, for PNG, the exclusive economic zones are one of the most important assets and it’s really important that we’re protecting that,” Marles told the Post-Courier.
Calling the ship rider agreement with the U.S. a “game changer,” Tkatchenko said Papua New Guinea also is working with Australia to finalize a defense cooperation agreement to protect the region.
“It’s an in-depth and detailed document that will bring our traditional partners together to assist us in building up the capacity of the PNGDF and protecting our sovereignty of the country,” he said, according to the Post-Courier. “It’s about building assets and capabilities.”
IMAGE CREDIT: AUSTRALIAN DEFENCE DEPARTMENT