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China, Papua New Guinea And Australia’s Backyard Blues


Clever diplomacy rarely involves total commitment or
unqualified fidelity to any one state. Treacherous waters
require careful navigation, an understanding of shifty and
shifting allegiances. The goal for the prudent statesperson
is the pursuit of self-interest without alienation. In that
regard, Papua New Guinea is proving increasingly
interesting, finding itself between playground thugs with
varying degrees of form. It has refused to cold shoulder the
People’s Republic of China, signing to its Belt and Road
Initiative. It also continues to accept the patronising
largesse from Australia, a country increasingly hostile to
Beijing’s ambitions in the Asia-Pacific.

Last week,
the Australian press were particularly excited by
“leaked” documents revealing a proposal from Hong Kong
registered company WYW Holding Limited to create a “New
Daru City” comprising an industrial zone, seaport,
business and commercial zone. To this would be added a
resort and residential area. In total, the entire enterprise
would cover 100 square kilometres. A very PRC sort of thing
in terms of massive promise.

The proposal was
apparently outlined
in a letter
to PNG Prime Minister James Marape in April
2020 by the company’s chief executive Terence Mo,
containing an “investment and development plan”
stressing the development of PNG’s Western Province. It
would involve “an agreed Sovereign Guarantee based on a
long-term BOT [Building Operate Transfer]
contract.”

Daru featured in the news last December,
when a memorandum of understanding signed between Fujian
Zhonghong Fishery and the PNG government to build a
“comprehensive multifunctional fishery industrial park”
valued at $204 million was revealed. Daru Mayor Samuel
Winggu admitted
at the time
that the project came with mixed blessings.
Environmentally, it might be disastrous for marine life. But
China’s presence might be “reluctantly” accepted
“because they might come in to provide some form of
employment.”

Members of the PNG government are being
coy on such matters. The national planning minister, Rainbo
Paita, has gone so far as to
claim
that the government has yet to be presented with
the proposal by WYW Holding Company. “We have no plans for
any such zones for Western Province.” Paita also insists
that the message had not been seen. “If there is a letter,
then we have not viewed it yet.” Claims for developing
“an economic zone and industrial zone” were simply not
true.

This is not to say that offers are not welcome.
A spokesman for Marape did
tell
the ABC that, should a foreign investor wish “to
come to PNG with multimillion kina investments, PNG will not
stop them … on condition our legal laws are complied with
and local Papua New Guineans benefit.”

Australian
commentators on the issue of Chinese manoeuvring in PNG are
invariably slanted. The heart of the inner patriot beats in
agitation at Beijing’s actions. Robert Potter, former
ministerial advisor in the Australian government, is full
of warning
about China’s funding tactics, though
admits that a more complex picture is being painted. China
might offer funding opportunities to PNG in the form of,
say, promises to fund fibre optic connections, 4G towers and
data centres. But in doing so, the PNG government has been
left owing China’s Exim Bank $470 million for the NBN1
3/4G project and the Kumul undersea cable.

The
Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank parked
in the Australian security establishment and bankrolled by
US sources (among others), is also fretting about the $39
billion super venture and the fishery industrial park. On
the latter, concern
is expressed
that Beijing is “increasing its efforts
to undermine our influence in Papua New Guinea.” With its
intended location on Daru Island, “the closest PNG
community to Australia and only 200 kilometres from the
Australian mainland”, the development would “throw
Australia off balance” and deplete local fish
stocks.

Michael Shoebridge of ASPI is taking the lead
in sounding
the alarm
on the New Daru City project. “Australian
policy makers and business leaders with PNG interests would
be wrong to be all complacent because of what the proposal
shows about Chinese intent in our near neighbourhood, and
for the way such proposals might land in the complex of PNG
politics.” This language is that of our prized backyard
being threatened, the vassal state of PNG easing out of
Canberra’s secure orbit.

Shoebridge expresses a view
both condescending and impotent, assuming that such Chinese
efforts compromise PNG independence while confessing that
Australia is powerless to prevent it. Canberra’s sense of
ownership, in other words, is waning. In doing so, he shies
away from the obvious and insidious point about how long in
duration Australia has kept the umbilical cord to that
unfortunate state functioning. “The combination is a
dangerous mix with real and adverse implications for the
region’s security, and PNG’s development and
sovereignty.”

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has
also discovered the concept of sovereignty, a mighty fine
thing, given Australia’s willingness to bribe countries in
the Pacific to become surrogates for processing refugees and
asylum seekers who would otherwise be processed on
Australian territory. To the Nine network, where scrutiny of
his actions is minimal, Dutton
was concerned
that there were “all sorts of
sovereignty issues” and “local issues, in terms of
landowner and land rights, that I think would provide a
significant hurdle.”

ASPI also
assumes
that those sneaky authoritarians in Beijing are
playing up to their usual inscrutable form. Why build such a
“multi-billion-dollar metropolis in remote Western
Province”, to be run by Chinese entities for a lengthy
period, not to mention “a fish processing facility scaled
for more fish than swim in the waters around
Daru”?

It might have made more sense to realise that
PNG, precisely in being sovereign, is making its own
arrangements. Security cadres in Canberra and Washington
take issue with the fact that the natives are showing
initiative. Shoebridge even comes close to accusing the
country of being a harlot of international relations.
“Promises of millions – even billions – of dollars for
a remote province are attractive not just for the Moresby
government but for provincial leaders who need to deliver
funds to local supporters.” The sort of cash, in other
words, Australia is simply not interested in
supplying.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth
Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT
University, Melbourne. Email:
bkampmark@gmail.com

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