The Guardian • Issue #2104

Soft rugby diplomacy

Rugby League, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, 2008.

Rugby League, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, 2008. Photo: Drew Douglas – (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Rugby League is huge in Papua New Guinea.

It is enormously expensive to have a National Rugby League franchise in your state or region. The NRL has some PNG players as well as Pacific Islander players in the established teams, and they are stars in their homeland. The size and agility of these players add a great dimension and excitement to the game.

Sports writers are keen to discuss the prospect of the NRL adding an 18th team to its stable as there is a space for another team in the 17-team competition. 

Peter Badel, Courier Mail sports writer, revealed on the ABC’s Offsiders program why the Australian government is donating $600 million to PNG for a NRL franchise. He said that it is what they call “soft diplomacy” in response to concerns about China’s targeting of PNG.

Apparently, the Australian government see a rugby league team as a tool to counter the influence of China in PNG and the rest of the Pacific.

Former rugby player Peter Fitzsimmons was not enthusiastic about a PNG team. He asked some reasonable questions about the wisdom of “putting that much money on a single league team in a comp where the salary cap is $11 million.”

“Any chance PNG itself could kick in a little for, you know, their team,” he wondered.   “Is there any chance that the NRL might put its hand in its own pocket, not ours, to make its own comp stronger?”

“Is there another example, anywhere in the world, in history, of a national government putting that kind of money into a club team of another nation?”

Fitzsimmons went on: “But getting lectures on geopolitics from the NRL feels more than a little odd, and putting that kind of freight to a single team in another nation feels profligate.”

So, an Australian government, motivated by an exaggerated desire to please the US, has manipulated its aid program to counter possible Chinese influence, rather than assist PNG with the many economic and social challenges it faces.

Despite a call by former Prime Minister Paul Keating to “make your security in Asia, not from Asia”, the Australian government has come up with this harebrained scheme of supporting the foundation of an NRL club in PNG.

Government massively overspending on the military, sending patrols into China’s exclusive economic zone and holding military exercises on Australian shores to practice the invasion of China, while at the same time doing everything it can to increase trade with China is so contradictory that somehow it must fall apart soon.

Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr recently commented that “It’s not possible to continue to play war games with the Americans and trade games with China and hope to live on in blissful prosperity.”

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