By SJA Jafri + Bureau Report + Agencies
Papua New Guinea’s prime minister has hailed ties with “big brother” Australia in a historic and closely watched speech in Canberra.
It is also nearly the 50th anniversary of PNG’s independence from Australia.
“Nothing will come in between our two countries because we are family,” Marape told Australian MPs.
In jest, he added that “one can choose friends, but one is stuck with family forever” and “we have no choice but to get along”.
Marape joins an elite list of overseas leaders who’ve addressed lawmakers in Canberra, including the Chinese President Xi Jinping, former US President Barack Obama, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
PNG is Australia’s nearest neighbor. The two nations are separated by just a few kilometres of sea in the Torres Strait where the Pacific and Indian Oceans meet. It is the only country that can be seen from Australia’s shoreline
There are two main undercurrents to Marape’s visit. Firstly, there’s unrest at home sparked by a strike by police officers, which has destabilized his government and could potentially lead to a motion of no confidence in his leadership within days.
Then there’s China, and its growing ambitions in the Pacific, which have reignited a diplomatic race with Australia.
In 2021, Beijing signed a security pact with Solomon Islands, a strategically located archipelago north-east of Australia. Canberra has responded, striking accords with neighbors big and small, including PNG, the largest Pacific Island nation.
Marape did not make reference to China in his speech.
He twice emphasized that “a strong economically empowered Papua New Guinea means a stronger and more secure Australia in the Pacific”, and concluded by urging Australia to “contribute where you can and leave the rest to us”.
It’s clear the regional dynamics are changing, said Dirk van der Kley, a senior research fellow at the Australian National University’s (ANU) National Security College.
“We (Australia) are used to being the leading economic and security power within the Pacific region and that is probably still true,” he told media (but) “there is concern in the government and more broadly in Australian society that our ability to shape events in our region may be less than it was previously.”
“Australia has been trying hard prompted by China’s rise in the region to change its behavior. In many cases Australia is out in front of China.”
Last November, Canberra announced a security and climate change accord with Tuvalu, a grouping of several low-lying coral atolls in the South Pacific. A month later, Australia reached its security agreement with PNG. But within weeks, PNG’s foreign Minister Justin Tkachenko had dropped an apparent diplomatic bombshell when it was reported that his government was talking to Beijing about forging a similar type of deal.
This week, Tkachenko has backtracked, blaming “misinformation” for suggesting a security pact with China was being negotiated. Australia, he insisted, was PNG’s partner of choice.