The Guardian • Issue #2097

Papua New Guinea, Australia, USA: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Papua New Guinean Prime Minister James Marape.

Papua New Guinean Prime Minister James Marape. Photo: US State Department/Chuck Kennedy – Public Domain

Two state visits and an insult of huge proportions. All this in just a little more one rather tumultuous week for Papua New Guinea. There were serious talks aimed at taking the relationship between China and PNG to a stronger and mutually advantageous level. There was a flag-waving, camera-clicking visit from the Australian prime minister that harked back to the dark period of WW2. There was a bizarre and phenomenally stupid remark from President Biden alleging that his uncle had been eaten by cannibals in PNG during the war. Each tells a story.

PNG’s week could be divided into ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly.’ It certainly reflected the past, the present, and the future. Albanese’s Kokoda photo-opportunities and  WW2-era ‘fuzzy-wuzzy angels’ imagery is locked in a past aimed at an Australian domestic audience. Biden’s comments are a metaphor for how imperialism views the world, even today. While it is extreme, demeaning, and racist, it fits with Australian media representations of Solomon Islands as a ‘fly-speck’ country, when it had the audacity to develop good relations with China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Port Moresby represents the future, one that benefits both countries and helps PNG to develop a stronger economy and infrastructure.

The Chinese Foreign Minister, upon leaving the country, pointed out that the visit was good for both sides, that mutual interests were advantaged and that increased cooperation would inject vitality into the entire South Pacific Region. Wang summed up the healthy state of relations between PNG and China as “mutually beneficial.”

PNG suffers from the legacy of colonialism. Chen Hong, director of the Australian Studies Centre of East China Normal University described the situation as it affects PNG, but which equally applies to the region in general and the policies of imperialism in particular. He commented that “Western powers colonised these regions without properly establishing a system of social governance and left them in a mess in terms of politics, economy, and social governance when the regional countries gained independence.”

In the face of Australian pressure, the nations of the Pacific have repeatedly said that it is not a case of choosing one country as an exclusive partner. Marape has consistently stated that his country is a friend to all and an enemy to none. Fostering good relations with China serves the actual best interests of both states. China consistently denounces the doctrine of zero sum in favour of a more rational win-win strategy in international relations.

PNG Foreign Minister, Justin Tkatchenko, echoed the sentiments of his Chinese counterpart, stressing that PNG is committed to the promotion of strong bilateral relations.

The joint meetings had a clear focus. It was all about promoting interactions that would benefit both sides and lead to greater development of sustainable economic structures for PNG. After decades of Australian domination, both before and after independence in 1975, development has been all but ignored.

How Australia really regards PNG can be seen in a telling extract from Australia’s Defence White Paper of 2016, updated in 2020 and unchanged today. It is an assessment of the ‘value’ of PNG. “Geographical proximity … security, stability, and cohesion of Papua New Guinea contributes to a secure, resilient Australia with secure northern approaches.” PNG is, in such a telling, little more than a buffer zone for Australia. That is hardly reassuring for PNG.

While Australia may see PNG as a buffer state, Beijing and Port Moresby have moved closer to a Belt and Road arrangement. China has stated that it is hoping that a free trade agreement will be established in the near future.

Prime Minister Marape does not seek to distance his government from Australia. He is clear in his estimation that an independent foreign and economic policy is in his country’s best interest. Relations with the United States are expressed in similar terms. President Biden’s outrageous remarks about cannibalism and his uncle seriously stretched the resolve of Marape to remain a ‘friend to all.’

Marape reminded the USA that a little respect might be in order. The US has for decades treated the region in a cavalier manner. More recently, and only because Pacific Island states have expressed a willingness to develop good relationships with China, the Americans have been making a show of interest.

The White House sought to explain away Biden’s inane remarks as a ‘slip of the tongue.’ This is not good enough and Marape recognised it. He urged the US to clear up the mess that they left behind after the war. A clearly angry Marape, reminded the US that “the country remains littered with wartime human remains, plane wrecks, ship wrecks and tunnels, as well as leftover bombs that were still killing people.” He invited the US president to clean up the mess and possibly find the remains of his dead uncle. He also reminded the US leader that “PNG’s people were needlessly dragged into a conflict that was not of their doing.”

And so, a week of turmoil for PNG. The good the bad and the ugly.

There were talks that are leading to a stronger economy and a more prosperous future for the country. There were displays of symbolism, linked to the past. There were photo-opportunities for one visitor, but no substance beyond the flag waving and back-slapping. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit might have lacked the symbolic gestures of Anthony Albanese’s Kokoda Track spectacle, but a future is made, not by empty gestures but on tangible, mutually beneficial things. PNG Prime Minister, Marape, when asked about the two visits coming so close to one another, smiled and said that PNG was blessed. The message delivered by President Biden was anything but a blessing.

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