Northeast AsiaOceaniaPartnerships

Papua New Guinea, U.S. collaborate on maritime security

Tom Abke

Mutual trust is the basis for Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the United States to enhance the Pacific nation’s maritime security, including permission for a U.S. Coast Guard cutter to enforce PNG’s laws. Enhanced patrols by both countries will counter transnational crime, and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing while upholding PNG’s sovereignty, officials and analysts said.

The U.S. Coast Guard “brings unparalleled experience and capability in maritime law enforcement, which will augment Port Moresby’s patrol assets and ability to assert its control over the activity being conducted in its littorals and exclusive economic zone [EEZ],” Blake Herzinger, a foreign policy and defense research fellow at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, told FORUM.

PNG has granted U.S. Coast Guard crews authority to patrol its maritime EEZ and, if necessary, to board vessels without a PNG law enforcement official present, he added, “which represents an incredible amount of trust in the relationship.”

A U.S. Coast Guard cutter’s deployment to PNG, scheduled for August 2023, is part of Washington’s efforts to help the Pacific nation modernize its defense force, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said while in PNG in late July 2023 to sign a Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) with PNG Prime Minister James Marape. U.S. commitments also include new equipment, increased training and defense facility enhancements.

The agreement, which is awaiting ratification by PNG’s Parliament, deepens ties between the nations and bolsters cooperation and interoperability between their armed forces. Priorities include humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, the U.S. Defense Department stated.

The DCA’s mutual law enforcement provisions are significant. “China’s fishing fleet, the world’s largest, has previously been caught fishing illegally in PNG’s waters,” Herzinger said, while illegal resource exploitation and trafficking of people, weapons and narcotics occur within PNG’s EEZ.

“Having a highly capable patrol asset with sophisticated situational awareness assets like radar and UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] helps to shine a light in the dark corners where this activity takes place and interdict it to apprehend those responsible,” he said, referring to the U.S. Coast Guard cutter.

More than 40 PNG port security professionals attended a U.S. Coast Guard workshop in February 2023 to enhance capabilities, according to the U.S. Embassy in Port Moresby, which helped stage the training.

The program addressed three areas: controlling access to port facilities and protecting them from physical threats; drills and exercises to test and improve security plans; and assessing port risks and vulnerabilities, along with existing security measures.

At nearly 2.5 million square kilometers, PNG’s EEZ is among the region’s largest.

“We invited them [the U.S.] in the defense space to help build our defense to protect our own borders, including stopping fishing losses and blight of the illegal [logging] from our forests,” Marape said.

Tom Abke is a FORUM correspondent reporting from Singapore.

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