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Papua New Guinea: Proxy for the great powers?

February 16, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

By John F.M. Kocsis, Harvard Political Review

In one of the coming decades’ most important developments, tensions between the United States and China have begun to escalate on a whole host of new fronts. Prospects for the presidency have soared to new heights of monetary nationalism, the Obama administration has announced plans to station 2,500 marines in the Pacific, and Chinese diplomats have turned up the heat on American allies in the South China Sea.

As in all great rivalries, China and America both have proxies whom they support, provided the junior partners act in their interest.  One such proxy nation is Papua New Guinea, the resource-rich Pacific nation whose domestic political instability has made it a surprising focus of American and Chinese geopolitical maneuvering.

Of potential flashpoints for conflict in the Pacific arena, Papua New Guinea is generally less studied than its regional counterparts, such as the Philippines and Vietnam.  New Guinean history is primarily viewed through the lens of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.  This ignores the island’s long history on the world stage.  A battleground between Allied and Japanese forces in World War II, the country was restored to Australian ownership at the campaign’s end.  Sir Michael Somare, a perennial leader of Papua New Guinea, finally won his people independence in 1975 – but ever since, the Melanesian state has been fraught with conflict.

Despite recent military developments, Papua New Guinea is ostensibly in the throes of a petty constitutional crisis.  Sir Michael Somare, in his fourth nonconsecutive role as prime minister until this past August, has returned from his convalescence in Singapore claiming to be the country’s rightful legislative chief.  The person serving in that position now, Peter O’Neill, toppled the placeholder Somare who appointed in August and was voted by the parliament as the rightful prime minister.  The small nation’s supreme court ruled that because Somare left for heart surgery with full intention to reclaim his seat, he is legally entitled to the role of prime minister. By and large, parliament disagrees – and Papua New Guinean ministers strongly support the new prime minister, Peter O’Neill.  This vehement disagreement at the highest levels of government led to a mutiny attempt to remove O’Neill and restore Somare.

The rebellion was successful at first.  Hired by Michael Somare, the Indonesian colonel Yaura Sasa and his troops seized control of the military barracks in Port Moresby, the capital, and captured Brigadier-General Francis Agwi, the Commander of the PNG Defense Force.  After days of escalation, soldiers surrendered their weapons on January 30.  They promised to stand down instead of facing prison time.  The colonel was jailed but later released on the grounds that he was merely operating under government commands.  The government of Sir Michael Somare, which the Supreme Court deemed legitimate, had, after all, executed the order.

A surface-level reading of this scenario focuses on an internal struggle within government leadership over political control and resources, a common occurrence in developing nations. However, a broader and perhaps more accurate view of the situation requires putting it in terms of American and Chinese interests.  Papua New Guinea is an attractive destination for investors due to its untapped 22.6 trillion cubic feet in natural gas, not to mention its copper and gold wealth.  Exxon Mobil is working on a $15.7 billion liquefied natural gas project that should due to be completed in 2014.  The China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) is developing China’s largest overseas mining investment, a $1.6 billion attempt to exploit 140 million tons of nickel.

As is typical of situations in which foreign investment is involved, outside nations require government compliance in forging ahead with their designs.  China had an easy time injecting itself in the nation when Somare was in charge.  The once and perhaps future prime minister supported Chinese interests in his Environment Act, which amended the law so that landowners could no longer contest damaging activities on their land – a move that authorized the MCC’s plan to dump toxic mine waste into the Bismarck Sea.  This provision was repealed by the O’Neill government, which claimed to look out for both the environment and the rights of its constituents.

The acts of Peter O’Neill are not necessarily so principled.  While Somare instituted a “look north” policy during his tenure, O’Neill has increasingly conducted his primary business with Julia Gillard and her Labor government in Australia.  Sir Michael Somare saw China as the country to emulate.  He invited members of the People’s Liberation Army to train the Papua New Guinea Defense Force.  He also established a program for PNG officers to undertake military training in the People’s Republic of China for up to three years.  Historically, since Papua New Guinean independence, training aid had been under the aegis of Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.  In the past couple of months, O’Neill has attempted to revert to those days, inviting Australian troops back to the island.

Last spring, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admonished Somare for getting too close to his neighbor to the north. She warned of a “resource curse,” insinuating that he would fail as leader if he lacked commitment to good governance, transparency, and accountability.  Clinton has taken a Kissinger-esque stand when it comes to the nation, urging the U.S. Congressional Foreign Relations Committee, “Let’s put aside the moral, humanitarian, do-good side of what we believe in and let’s just talk straight, realpolitik.” She bluntly claimed that China is trying to “come in under us” regarding “Papua New Guinea’s huge energy find.” As if there was any doubt, she strongly asserted, “We are in a competition with China.”

U.S. diplomats aren’t the only ones to recognize the recent skirmish’s implications on the Chinese-American divide.  Resentful PNG citizens have circulated text messages claiming, “The Somare regime existed through Asian mafia’s funding.” Papua New Guinea has experienced the rapid rise in Chinese immigrants to which the entire Pacific region has become accustomed.  Nativist anti-Chinese riots ulcerated in 2009; accordingly, most citizens strongly prefer America to China. However, as America’s unipolar moment fades into a period of increased Chinese assertiveness, it is not hard to imagine a future of Chinese dominance in Papua New Guinea.

Pacific Islanders might not like their new neighbors, but many established politicians have a tendency to get along with Beijing just fine.  As China’s aggression continues, its influence is unlikely to go anywhere but up.

  1. Karsie
    February 18, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    The author refers to Colonel Yaura Sasa as an Indonesian. He is not, but a PNGian of Morobe origin.

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