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Australia's Northern Shield?


Chapter 12



‘Although neither country seeks formal undertakings it will be important that they maintain close consultations regarding any developments that could affect their security’.

Australian Defence White Paper 1976

Malcolm Fraser was sworn in as Prime Minister on 22 December 1975 after securing an overwhelming victory at the general election following the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. Fraser had been familiar with the issues surrounding the defence relationship with the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea from his earlier appointments as Minister for the Army (1966–1968) and Minister for Defence (1969–1971). While serving as Minister for the Army he had undertaken his first visit to Papua New Guinea in May 1967.1 As Minister for Defence he had been closely involved in July 1970 in the controversy over the proposal to allow for the call-out of the Pacific Islands Regiment (PIR) to assist the police in controlling rioters in Rabaul. Fraser had attended the independence celebrations in Port Moresby in September 1975.

Fraser appointed Andrew Peacock as Minister for Foreign Affairs. Peacock too was familiar with Papua New Guinea from his time as Minister for the Army (March 1971–February 1972) and Minister for External Territories (February–December 1972). He had visited Port Moresby as recently as August 1975. Peacock had earlier brought a new level of energy to the portfolio of External Territories after the ‘dead-hand paternalism’ of Barnes and had been quick to engage the emerging leaders of Papua New Guinea, both elected and non-elected, in discussion about the future constitutional arrangements for the Territory.2 In May 1972 he had written to Somare on the need for accelerated movement towards self-government and in July 1972 he had chaired one of the early meetings between Australian and Papua New Guinean ministers and officials on the transfer of responsibility and decision-making to the Territory.3 He had encouraged Papua New Guineans to ‘not just sit back and wait for [self-government] to happen’, although he did not speak of independence. He took the view that ‘Papua New Guinea will be our closest foreign neighbour; while we will be her closest source of aid and expertise’.4 However, while Papua New Guinea would ‘occupy a very special position in Australia’s policy’ Australia would not seek or assert ‘an exclusive relationship’ with an independent Papua New Guinea.5

The third appointment of relevance was that of James Killen as Minister for Defence. Killen had served as Minister for the Navy (November 1969– March 1971) and in that capacity had visited Papua and New Guinea in early 1970 and had, on Gorton’s instructions, met with the leaders of the Mataungan Association.6

The joint Liberal–National Party policy platform for the 1975 election had placed an emphasis on maintaining a close relationship with an independent Papua New Guinea. It made no specific reference to a defence relationship.

Two new governments – same issues

During the first weeks of the Whitlam Government, Whitlam and his ministers had visited Port Moresby and had come under pressure to make early decisions on the management of the bilateral relationship. In a striking historical parallel, the Fraser ministry came under early pressure to receive Somare. Papua New Guinea’s new Prime Minister had asked to visit Canberra to discuss the terms of the aid relationship agreed with the Whitlam Government and the immediate problems faced by his government to maintain its foreign exchange reserves. He had written to Fraser on 30 January 1976 and warned that the decisions taken in 1975 by Australia on the composition of its aid commitment had ‘left us in such a precarious financial position’ that it could lead ‘to major difficulties for our relationship. … It would be all too easy for an Australian government to accidently destroy our future prospects’ while there would be clear ‘threats to regional stability … if a nation fails to surmount [its difficulties]’.7

In preparation for Somare’s visit the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee of Cabinet (FADC) examined three submissions on the bilateral relationship with Papua New Guinea, the threatened secession of Bougainville and the future long-term defence relationship with Papua New Guinea. In responding to the first two submissions ministers made clear that ‘Australia had an overriding national interest in the maintenance of a stable, viable and united Papua New Guinea’.8 They also ‘expressed concern that this interest might be prejudiced if adequate Australian support was not provided’.9 Fraser told his ministers that ‘it would be infinitely costly for Australia if Somare fails’ and that Australia had to ‘help him in the eyes of [his] own people’. He emphasised the ‘overriding interest of Australia in a unified and stable PNG’.10 Alan Renouf, who had succeeded Sir Keith Waller as Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs in February 1974 and had attended the meeting of the FADC, told his departmental colleagues that the Cabinet committee had emphasised the assessment that ‘a united Papua New Guinea was very definitely in the interests of both Australia and Papua New Guinea’.11 In coming to these views the Fraser Government had not deviated from the policy position adopted and articulated by the Whitlam Government.

On Bougainville specifically, the Cabinet agreed to assure Somare of Australia’s ‘support in his pursuit of a united Papua New Guinea’. In a departure from established policy ministers asked for a new paper which would examine the options open to Australia to assist Port Moresby in its dispute with the secessionist movement on Bougainville. In a letter from the Department of Defence to Foreign Affairs in September 1976, Defence advised that it was the ‘firm recollection’ of its Secretary, Sir Arthur Tange, who was present at the Cabinet meeting on 2 March 1976, that:

Cabinet was not so concerned about possible involvement of Australian servicemen in support of PNG Government operations in Bougainville. Cabinet had already ruled on this aspect. Rather it wanted a paper which examined the implications of all options open to Australia to assist the PNG Government to maintain or reassert its authority in Bougainville – including the use of force from Australia. The Government did not exclude the possibility of military intervention from Australia in Bougainville. The decision would depend upon the circumstances pertaining at the time. What the Government wanted was a clear indication of the consequences domestically, internationally and within PNG of Australian intervention or, conversely, a decision to stand aside.12

An indication of Fraser’s thoughts on the issue of military intervention were revealed in an interview with Peter Hastings in May 1976 when, in response to a question as to whether there were any circumstances under which Australia would contemplate military intervention, Fraser responded:

that’s a very hypothetical question. I wouldn’t want to rule out the possibility. But at the same time I would very much hope that the skill of the Papua New Guinea Government, the general support that Australia can provide in many other ways which I’m not going to define would make any such eventuality quite unnecessary.13

As events unfolded, the paper sought by the Cabinet did not eventuate. Meetings and negotiations continued between Somare and the leaders of Bougainville, concluding with the signing of the Bougainville Agreement on 7 August 1976 and the inauguration of a Provincial Government on 26 November 1976. As part of the agreement, Somare had accepted the introduction of a provincial government in Papua New Guinea.14

The third submission sought guidance on the question of the future long-term defence relationship.15 On this issue Fraser and his colleagues did not deviate from established policy. The Minister for Defence (Killen) advised his colleagues of the situation that had been reached prior to independence and the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. He noted that neither government wished to enter into a formal commitment to the defence of the other; both governments were seeking to project a relationship which demonstrated Papua New Guinea’s independent status; and both governments accepted that the concept of the opportunity to consult would be available if the need arose. Killen also put before his colleagues the recommendations made by the Defence Committee in November 1973 and its emphasis on ensuring that PNG’s primary defence relationship should be with Australia. Killen noted that a further meeting of the Defence Committee in October 1975 had confirmed the views set out in November 1973.16

Killen warned his colleagues that a ‘firm commitment’ from Australia could also encourage ‘some elements in the PNG government and the Defence Force Command … to think in terms of the early use of military force, e.g. regarding border incursions from the Indonesian side and the situation in Bougainville’. He added that a ‘firm commitment from Australia could encourage this disposition and expose Australia to pressure for support. Even though a commitment related only to external defence, a PNG government under serious internal challenge may well not observe this distinction’.17 While he had highlighted the need to be aware of Indonesia, he added that ‘substantial Indonesian military penetration of PNG, beyond possible limited border forays, was assessed by the Defence Committee as improbable. … [An] external threat from any other source [was] also assessed as improbable’.18

The assessment by the Defence Committee and the references in the Cabinet paper reflected the doubts that Australia continued to hold regarding the behaviour of an independent Papua New Guinea. Australia was not prepared to place its full trust in the actions of the newly independent state and was not prepared to open up the possibility that Australia would have to respond in some way to Papua New Guinea’s actions against Indonesia, notably on the border.

Killen then went on to set out the elements of the long-term defence relationship which had been discussed under the previous government. He noted that it was proposed that a Joint Statement be issued by the two defence ministers. It would refer to the desire of both governments to continue close relations in the defence field based on the common strategic interests of PNG and Australia as immediate neighbours. The Statement would also record a ‘request from PNG for continuing assistance in the development and support of the PNGDF and the willingness of Australia to continue to provide this support’. It:

would specifically affirm that both governments stood ready, as part of this continuing close defence relationship, to consult together at any time, at the request of either, about any matter which might affect their strategic involvement or any aspect of their mutual defence relations.19

Killen sought Cabinet endorsement of the recommendation that there be no formal Australian defence commitment to defend Papua New Guinea and that instead there be practical, cooperative relations, including a Defence Cooperation Program, that would in part ‘establish the primacy of PNG’s defence relationship with Australia’. He sought approval to negotiate a Joint Statement along the lines he had set out.

The Cabinet decision simply states that the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee ‘took note of the paper’.20 In subsequent correspondence with the Department of Defence it was recorded that ‘there was very little discussion of this item’.21 In correspondence between the Secretary of Cabinet, John Menadue, and the Department of Defence, Menadue advised that the Prime Minister had directed that a fresh submission be prepared on the subject of the defence relationship. To add to the confusion he suggested that it also ‘reflect some of the thinking on the importance that the Australian Government attaches to its support for a unified Papua New Guinea and … canvass the implications and the political prospects associated with secessionist movements (particularly Bougainville)’.22

Somare arrived in Canberra on 4 March 1976. Both he and the Australian Government were preoccupied with the question of how the Bougainville issue could be defused and how to resolve the very acrimonious debate that had developed over the level of development assistance Australia would provide to Papua New Guinea. These two issues dominated the discussions.

The communiqué issued following Somare’s visit highlighted the close nature of the relationship between the two countries and their ‘many abiding common interests’. It also stressed that the relationship would be based on the sovereign, independent status of each country and on a mutual appreciation of each country’s independent national interest. The aid issue, as well as the outstanding question of the country’s foreign reserves, were resolved with a new level of development assistance put in place and an increase approved in the standby arrangements to the Bank of PNG from the Reserve Bank of Australia. On Bougainville, the communiqué noted that Bougainville was an internal issue for Papua New Guinea and that Australia was no longer directly involved. The long-term defence relationship was mentioned only in passing, along with other outstanding issues in the bilateral relationship yet to be settled, with both governments agreeing to ‘proceed steadily towards completion of appropriate agreements or understandings’.23

Clarifying outstanding issues

Killen had been disappointed that the discussion in Cabinet in March had led only to his submission being ‘noted’. He had hoped for a clear endorsement of the policy positions he had put forward and approval to enter into negotiations with his counterpart, Kiki. He was determined to have the issues re-examined in Cabinet and in July 1976 presented a new submission.24

Killen sought Cabinet endorsement of the recommendations regarding a long-term defence relationship which he had made in his earlier submission. He put forward no new argument or information. On this occasion a briefing note to the Prime Minister from his department stated that officials had ‘reservations’ about the recommendation that ‘there be no formal Australian commitment to defend Papua New Guinea’. It described the wording as ‘ambiguous’ and argued that ‘we see the need to avoid a formal defence agreement with Papua New Guinea but we also think that Australia should have a defence policy of preparedness to defend PNG if required’.25 In the discussion in the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee Cabinet, Ian Sinclair (Minister for Primary Industry) argued that a defence agreement ‘need not commit us positively’ and, from the relevant entry in the Cabinet Notebook, appears to have suggested an ANZUS-type arrangement. He told his colleagues that he ‘would be disappointed if it were only a statement. Australians feel there should be something’.26 Fraser added that ‘something more than a joint ministerial statement’ was needed. He thought an exchange of letters could be a possible solution. Ministers agreed that the Minister for Defence, in consultation with the Minister for Foreign Affairs should:

explore further with Papua New Guinea the modalities of a long-term arrangement including the possibilities for:

i)a Government to Government Agreement; or

ii)an Exchange of Letters; or

iii)a Joint Statement by Prime Ministers or Defence Ministers.27

Two new governments – new strategic assessments

On 2 December 1976 Kiki tabled in the PNG Parliament the first detailed strategic assessment prepared since independence. The 1975–1976 Defence Report identified the ‘most immediate powers to be reckoned with are Indonesia and Australia’. It stated that ‘in the foreseeable future the Government does not anticipate there will be a major conventional invasion of Papua New Guinea’ but noted that the activities of anti-Indonesian dissidents in Irian Jaya could cause Indonesian security forces to spill over the border. The report identified the most ‘relevant’ threat to Papua New Guinea as that posed to the country’s maritime resources, particularly through illegal fishing. The report reiterated the government’s policy that ‘we do not intend to enter into military pacts and alliances with the great powers. We wish to follow a path of universalism and will not participate in the great powers’ quarrels’.28 It did refer to the existing interim defence arrangements with Australia covering practical issues such as supply support mechanisms and noted that permanent understandings were to be negotiated. The Defence Report also made clear that the government regarded the major function of the PNGDF as meeting external threats and that any involvement in internal security issues would be as a last resort.

The first post-independence defence assessment marked a significant milestone in the creation of a separate identity for Papua New Guinea’s defence policy. Papua New Guinea was still closely linked to Australia but was confident enough to set out its own guiding principles and identify its own priorities. From Australia’s perspective, the statement had emphasised the importance of Australia’s practical measures of support to the PNGDF while at the same time it had confirmed that Papua New Guinea would not seek a defence treaty.

At the same time as Papua New Guinea was preparing and then delivering its inaugural defence paper Australian officials were also preoccupied with drafting a new strategic outlook for the Fraser Government. A resulting document, Australian Strategic Analysis and Defence Policy Objectives (ASADPO) was endorsed by the Defence Committee in September 1976.29 The ASADPO paper described Indonesia as possessing ‘in relation to Australia attributes of both an ally and an adversary’ and said there was ‘no present likelihood of significant military threat to Australia from or through Indonesia’. It identified a ‘possible but unlikely contingency of small-scale Indonesian military pressure against PNG’. It noted that ‘Indonesia has legitimate interests in the stability of PNG and in its security’.30

Turning to Papua New Guinea, the paper identified the same themes which had appeared in strategic assessments since the late 1960s:

Papua New Guinea’s importance for the Australian defence interest resides in its geographic position and proximity; in the potential for trouble in PNG’s relations with Indonesia; and in the security of extensive Australian interests in PNG, including some thirty thousand citizens. Past and present close association also gives Australia important obligations for the support of PNG, and these include defence support.31

The document also acknowledged the traditional argument that ‘military lodgement in PNG by a power unfriendly to Australia would facilitate attack against Australia and lines of communication to Australia’s north’. This contingency, however, was ‘on today’s outlook improbable and would be remote in time’.32 The paper canvassed the issue of low-level incursions by Indonesian troops across the border and argued that as long as any incursion was limited and incidental there was no obvious Australian defence interest. If, however, Papua New Guinea attempted to use military force to prevent Indonesian forays it could in such circumstances ask for Australian assistance. The paper argued that ‘it would not be in Australia’s interests to allow PNG to involve Australia in a bilateral dispute with Indonesia brought to a crisis by PNG’s own irresponsible conduct’.33

While the ASADPO paper had examined some of the contingencies surrounding an external threat to PNG, its authors devoted most of their attention to the issue of the country’s internal instability. They argued that ‘Australian strategic policy can tolerate a significant degree of internal disorder – while preferring, of course, more stable conditions’.34 The possibility that PNG could seek Australian defence support in its internal security operations was assessed as ‘unlikely beyond the present level of limited logistic, transport and communications support’.

The paper’s reluctance to endorse the concept that Australian defence forces could become involved in responding to internal disorders was amplified dramatically when examining the question of the possible fragmentation of Papua New Guinea. It assessed fragmentation as having ‘major disadvantages for Australia’s strategic interests’ and stated that ‘the defence preference for a united PNG is clear’.35 The paper examined in detail the pros and cons of Australian military involvement on Bougainville and concluded that any such decision ‘would require very careful assessment’ at the time.

On the question of the long-term defence relationship with Papua New Guinea the ASADPO paper made clear that:

a basic requirement of Australian strategic policy is a defence relationship with PNG that sustains PNG’s acceptance of, and confidence in, Australia as its primary strategic partner. The relationship should make Australia’s major interest clear also to other powers, and to PNG’s expatriate population, on whom the national working and development of PNG so heavily depends.36

In referring to the principles of a long-term defence relationship it noted that:

This relationship involves a clear statement of the common strategic interests of the two countries and their intention to maintain defence cooperation; on-going consultations about strategic developments and policy requirements; and a substantial practical working defence relationship embodied in arrangements for project aid, training, attachment of service officers, supply support, military exercising, and operational support as circumstances require and the Government approves.37

In November 1976 Killen tabled in the House of Representatives a sanitised version of the Australian Strategic Analysis and Defence Policy Objectives Paper entitled Australian Defence .38

Negotiating the long-term defence relationship

Killen presented his third Cabinet submission in twelve months on Australia’s defence relationship with Papua New Guinea when in December 1976 he sought Cabinet approval for the terms of a Joint Statement on the long-term relationship. In addition, he sought Cabinet agreement to the terms of the Supply Support Arrangements, the Status of Forces Agreement and procedures covering the deployment of Australian personnel in the PNGDF to politically sensitive areas of operation.39 He referred to the statement by Kiki in the 1975–1976 PNG Defence report reiterating PNG’s wish that it not enter into a pact or alliance and recommended to Cabinet that Australia accept PNG’s suggestion that the statement instead be issued by both Prime Ministers during Fraser’s proposed visit to Port Moresby in February 1977. Killen noted that ‘pressure for any more formal accord could be counter-productive and could be represented as a departure from our own public statement in the Defence White Paper that neither government seeks formal undertakings’.40

Killen advised his colleagues that the proposed Joint Statement would note:

The two Prime Ministers affirmed that, on the basis of their historic links and their common strategic concerns, both their Governments:

attached high importance to maintaining close cooperation in defence matters;

recognised the importance of their defence relationship in the context of their common desire to strengthen peace and stability in their region; and therefore

stood ready to consult at any time, at the request of either, about any matter which might affect their security or any other aspects of their defence relationship.41

As it turned out, after nearly five years of debate in Canberra and negotiations with Port Moresby, the record in the Cabinet Notebook of the final consideration of the long-term defence relationship consists of two lines with Peacock asking Fraser whether he was ‘happy’ with the proposed joint statement and Fraser replying ‘yes’.42

In January 1977 officials conducted their final round of negotiations in Canberra with the text based on the earlier themes and the outline presented to Cabinet by Killen. In a further historical echo Somare visited Jakarta prior to the arrival of Fraser just as he had visited Jakarta before Whitlam’s visit to Port Moresby. Shortly before he left Jakarta Somare again confirmed that ‘Papua New Guinea did not intend to establish any military pacts with other countries such as Australia or New Zealand’.43

Fraser, accompanied by Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock, travelled to Port Moresby and held a formal round of consultations with Somare and Kiki on 8 February.44 The talks covered a wide range of bilateral as well as regional and international questions with the outstanding matters associated with the negotiation of the Torres Strait Treaty the most contentious bilateral issue. Discussion on the terms of the long-term defence relationship was relatively straightforward. Both sides repeated their opposition to a formal defence commitment. Kiki said that ‘it was pointless for Papua New Guinea and Australia to have a formal defence agreement’. He argued that ‘if one existed other countries such as the Soviet Union could also want to seek such an agreement with PNG’. Kiki added that he ‘considered that no formal defence agreement was necessary. What happened to Australia and PNG was such that he considered no formal defence agreement was necessary’. Somare agreed with Kiki and added that ‘there was a certain trust and confidence between the two countries which made a formal defence agreement unnecessary’. Moreover, ‘Australia and PNG understood and trusted each other and should continue on the understanding between the two governments and peoples’. Fraser expressed his full agreement with these sentiments. He added that ‘the two countries shared common interests which were born out of history and geography. Regardless of how tight defence agreements were the important thing that mattered was the relationship which existed between the two countries at any one time’.45 The two Prime Ministers accepted the terms of the proposed Joint Statement drafted by officials.

The Joint Statement was released on 11 February 1977 in the form of a press statement shortly before Fraser left Port Moresby. The other elements of the ‘defence package’ including the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement and the Supply Support Arrangements, were also formalised and made public at this time. The Joint Statement read:

The two Prime Ministers affirmed that both their Governments attached high importance to continuing the close cooperation between their two countries in defence matters. They acknowledged their Governments’ desire to contribute to the strengthening of peace and stability in their common region. They declared that it was their Governments’ intention to consult, at the request of either, about matters affecting their common security interests and about other aspects of their defence relationship.

Mr Fraser confirmed Australia’s willingness to continue, at the request of the Papua New Guinea Government, to assist in the development of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force, and in development projects carried out by Australian Service Units in Papua New Guinea …46

The Joint Statement had a strong ‘political’ status or at least represented a political intent as it had been authorised by the two Prime Ministers. But it did not represent a binding commitment under international law. It avoided any specifics as to the likely type of event or circumstance which would trigger consultations and did not establish any mechanism for such consultations. Australia had drawn on the terms of the Five Power Defence Arrangements with Malaysia and Singapore rather than those of the ANZUS Treaty with its ANZUS Ministerial Council as the means to facilitate consultations. While visits were to be frequent, the first formal meeting between defence officials to discuss the defence cooperation program did not take place until 1979.

There was little media interest in the Joint Statement. Fraser responded to one general question at a press conference on departure from Port Moresby by describing the Statement as a ‘communiqué and understanding that would carry us through in the future’.47 He made no mention of the Joint Statement in his letter of appreciation sent to Somare after the visit.48

It was left to Killen when tabling the statement and accompanying documentation in the House of Representatives on 23 February 1977 to note that:

They demonstrate, in a practical way, the importance Australia and Papua New Guinea attach to a continuing and close relationship in the defence field.

The agreement between the Australian and Papua New Guinea Governments to sustain their close cooperation in defence matters and the joint affirmation of their intention to consult at the request of either about matters affecting their common security is not the less significant – for each and for others – because their friendship is already so firmly and so openly established. This Parliament may look with pleasure and with no little pride upon the fact that in this new era of Papua New Guinea’s independence and national sovereignty it has joined with Australia to reaffirm a clear and mutual interest in close cooperation and consultation in defence matters.49

The Joint Statement ended five years of deliberation, debate and negotiation over the nature of the long-term defence relationship Australia wished to have in place with an independent Papua New Guinea. Australia’s objective was to secure its role as Papua New Guinea’s primary defence partner and ally but to retain flexibility over the level and type of commitment it was prepared to conclude to maintain that objective.


The Fraser Government shared the concerns of the Whitlam Government about the future stability and unity of Papua New Guinea. Ministers had been particularly worried by the continued threat from the leaders of Bougainville that the island would secede from Port Moresby’s control. These concerns influenced the government’s approach to the negotiation of the terms of the long-term defence relationship. The Fraser Government also adopted the Whitlam Government’s policy position of wishing to maintain maximum flexibility in responding to possible internal and external security problems that could erupt in the country. In this the Fraser Government was fortunate that the Somare Government, greatly influenced by its Defence Minister Maori Kiki, also wished to avoid any visible sign of dependency on its former colonial administrator.

The Fraser Government had accepted the orthodox view that Papua New Guinea was of strategic importance to Australia but that Australia’s interests were best protected by avoiding a treaty-level formal commitment to come to its defence under any circumstance or to become embroiled in its internal troubles. Australia had secured its objective of articulating a sense of commitment without entering into a legally binding, open-ended guarantee. Australia had also secured the equally important objective of ensuring that it remained, and was seen by others in the region, as Papua New Guinea’s primary defence partner. This close but not exclusive relationship ensured that Papua New Guinea would continue to occupy a significant place in future assessments of Australia’s regional security environment.

Australia's Northern Shield?

   by Bruce Hunt