A Papua New Guinean academic says the new security deals with the United States will militarise his country and anyone who thinks otherwise is naïve.
In May, PNG’s Defence Minister Win Barki Daki and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed the Defence Cooperation Agreement and the Shiprider Agreement.
Last week they were presented to PNG MPs for ratification and made public.
- LISTEN TO RNZ PACIFIC WAVES: Michael Kabuni talks defence treaties
- READ MORE: Other PNG-US defence pact reports
The defence cooperation agreement talks of reaffirming a strong defence relationship based on a shared commitment to peace and stability and common approaches to addressing regional defence and security issues.
Money that Marape ‘wouldn’t turn down’
University of PNG political scientist Michael Kabuni said there was certainly a need for PNG to improve security at the border to stop, for instance, the country being used as a transit point for drugs such as methamphetamine and cocaine.
“Papua New Guinea hasn’t had an ability or capacity to manage its borders. So we really don’t know what goes on on the fringes of PNG’s marine borders.”
But Kabuni, who is completing his doctorate at the Australian National University, said whenever the US signs these sorts of deals with developing countries, the result is inevitably a heavy militarisation.
“I think the politicians, especially PNG politicians, are either too naïve, or the benefits are too much for them to ignore. So the deal between Papua New Guinea and the United States comes with more than US$400 million support. This is money that [Prime Minister] James Marape wouldn’t turn down,” he said.
The remote northern island of Manus, most recently the site of Australia’s controversial refugee detention camp, is set to assume far greater prominence in the region with the US eyeing both the naval base and the airport.
US fighter jets now (21.06.23) at Jacksons International Airport, Port Moresby.
📷 Walen Parange pic.twitter.com/EVrOV7CWZ3
— Bobby Jr (@tambijr_4rmPNG) June 21, 2023
Kabuni said Manus was an important base during World War II and remains key strategic real estate for both China and the United States.
“So there is talk that, apart from the US and Australia building a naval base on Manus, China is building a commercial one. But when China gets involved in building wharves, though it appears to be a wharf for commercial ships to park, it’s built with the equipment to hold military naval ships,” he said.
Six military locations
Papua New Guineans now know the US is set to have military facilities at six locations around the country.
These are Nadzab Airport in Lae, the seaport in Lae, the Lombrum Naval Base and Momote Airport on Manus Island, as well as Port Moresby’s seaport and Jackson’s International Airport.
According to the text of the treaty the American military forces and their contractors will have the ability to largely operate in a cocoon, with little interaction with the rest of PNG, not paying taxes on anything they bring in, including personal items.
Prime Minister James Marape has said the Americans will not be setting up military bases, but this document gives them the option to do this.
Marape said more specific information on the arrangements would come later.
Antony Blinken said the defence pact was drafted by both nations as ‘equal and sovereign partners’ and stressed that the US will be transparent.
Critics of the deal have accused the government of undermining PNG’s sovereignty but Marape told Parliament that “we have allowed our military to be eroded in the last 48 years, [but] sovereignty is defined by the robustness and strength of your military”.
The Shiprider Agreement has been touted as a solution to PNG’s problems of patrolling its huge exclusive economic zone of nearly 3 million sq km.
Another feature of the agreements is that US resources could be directed toward overcoming the violence that has plagued PNG elections for many years, with possibly the worst occurrence in last year’s national poll.
But Michael Kabuni said the solution to these issues will not be through strengthening police or the military but by such things as improving funding and support for organisations like the Electoral Commission to allow for accurate rolls to be completed well ahead of voting.