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Australia's Northern Shield?


Chapter 13



In 1974, the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Don Willesee, had posed the question to the incoming High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea, Tom Critchley, ‘Would a broad treaty of friendship be a useful umbrella for our general relationship, possibly incorporating arrangements in regard to some of these subjects (Torres Strait matters, aid, cultural relations, defence, fisheries and civil aviation)?’.1 The idea was not pursued within the Australian Government and lapsed. A similar concept had been suggested by Kim Beazley in the early 1970s prior to the election of the Whitlam Government.2

In August 1986, in the wake of financial pressures affecting the Australian budget, the Hawke Labor Government, elected in 1983, advised Papua New Guinea that the five-year aid program set out in the 1985 Memorandum of Understanding would be amended and that the level of aid would be reduced by $10 million for the period 1986–1987.

The reduction in the aid program caused great consternation in Port Moresby, not so much due to the size of the cut but rather because it was seen as a breach of faith. This was the first such negative measure implemented by Australia since 1975 and had come with little warning. As a result, many in Papua New Guinea began to view Australia as a somewhat unpredictable partner. The government of the recently-elected Prime Minister, Paias Wingti, accepted Australia’s decision but decided that the relationship with Australia needed to be redefined. Wingti believed that a new arrangement was required which drew a line under the post-colonial period and set the two countries on a new path in their relationship. In this line of thinking he was assisted by Bill Dihm, the Secretary of PNG’s Department of Foreign Affairs. Both Wingti and Dihm represented a new generation of PNG leaders who were less closely associated with those who had taken the country to independence in 1975 and were less sentimental in their approach to the relationship with Australia. Both placed more importance on securing formal written assurances than on relying on personal ties and shared history to guide the relationship.

In December 1986 the Wingti Government presented Australia with the draft of a proposed Joint Declaration of Principles (JDP) and an Integrated Development Package (IDP). The draft JDP was a comprehensive document the scope of which embraced nearly all aspects of the bilateral relationship, ranging from trade, investment, private sector cooperation, development assistance, legal cooperation, border administration and assistance in combating smuggling to terrorism and crime. It strongly emphasised the principle of mutual respect for each nation’s independence, sovereignty and equality. Perhaps reflecting the sense of uncertainty which had entered Papua New Guinea’s relationship with Australia, Wingti proposed that the JDP be a treaty-level document. As such, it would be more difficult to break or amend and would be enforceable under international law. The PNG proposal included the idea of a Ministerial Forum which would meet regularly to review issues in the bilateral relationship.

Although taken by surprise, Australia welcomed the Wingti Government’s initiative and endorsed the fundamental principles underlying it. Officials met in Port Moresby in 1987 to discuss the terms of the proposed declaration and reached agreement on almost all the text proposed by Papua New Guinea. However, the draft JDP also contained a set of clauses which sought to revisit the terms of the defence commitment agreed by Prime Ministers Somare and Fraser in 1977. The proposed redefinition was to cause a particular concern for the Australian Government.

In August 1987 Bill Hayden, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, sought Cabinet’s endorsement for Australia’s approach to the draft Joint Declaration and for the negotiation of the articles dealing with the revised terms of the defence relationship.3 Hayden was generally sympathetic to the PNG initiative and acknowledged that the draft reflected the ‘desire of the PNG Government … to put relations with Australia on a more balanced footing and a PNG attempt to establish its identity with Australia’.4 He drew attention to a ‘problem mainly in the area of defence’ and advised his colleagues that the PNG Minister for Foreign Affairs had said that a ‘major consideration behind the JD (Joint Declaration) is PNG’s desire to strengthen Australia’s security commitment to it’. (In attachment C to the Cabinet Submission it is stated that PNG proposed a commitment as follows: ‘the two Governments shall cooperate in meeting common threats to their security, including armed attacks against either country, in accordance with their respective constitutional processes’.)5 Hayden made clear his strong objections to the PNG draft proposal. He described it as ‘provid[ing] for cooperation in meeting unspecified common threats’. He warned that to go beyond the terms of the 1977 Prime Ministerial Joint Statement, which he strongly supported, would present ‘real dangers … not the least being a very real potential for PNG to interpret any new wording as an explicit and concrete commitment in circumstances where, I am concluding, we would be prudent and sober enough not to want to act’. Knowingly or not, Hayden drew on similar arguments to those that had circulated in Canberra in the late 1960s and 1970s when he said that ‘an explicit and concrete undertaking’ could ‘make us hostages to the impulsive and unwise behaviour of an unsteady and poorly led PNG Government’. He also questioned how Indonesia would comprehend the signing of such a commitment and concluded that ‘our bilateral ties with PNG would, at the very least, be regarded by Indonesia with suspicion and even hostility’.

Hayden was mystified as to why Papua New Guinea had proposed such a strong defence commitment with Australia when it had only months earlier signed a Treaty of Mutual Respect, Friendship and Cooperation with Indonesia. He accepted that his strong objections to the PNG draft might not be endorsed by his ministerial colleagues and proposed, ‘only most reluctantly’, a fall-back position which would not ‘explicitly or implicitly commit us unreservedly to the defence of PNG in all circumstances’; allow Australia ‘ample flexibility of response’; reflect the historical and strategic relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea; encourage Papua New Guinea to act responsibly with its neighbours; and oblige it to maintain a reasonable level of defence effort.6

In an attachment to his submission Hayden presented Cabinet with a comprehensive review of the question of the strategic importance of Papua New Guinea to Australia and examined the pros and cons of various alternate wordings intended to capture the terms of a revised defence relationship and commitment.

In explaining the strategic significance of Papua New Guinea to Australia the paper reflected many of the themes that had appeared in similar papers written in the 1960s and 1970s. It argued that:

PNG’s importance for Australian defence interests rests on three basic considerations: its proximity to north-eastern Australia and to the sea lines of communication to our north; the presence in PNG of substantial numbers of Australian citizens; and the potential in PNG’s relations with Indonesia for disturbance of Australia’s relations with Indonesia. This combination of factors gives PNG unique strategic importance to Australia.7

Again, reflecting the arguments of earlier Strategic Basis Papers, the document described how the historical ties with PNG gave Australia ‘a strong interest in the security of PNG’. It warned that Australia’s security would be significantly disadvantaged if a hostile power were to gain lodgement in or control over PNG as this would allow such a power to project maritime force over Australia’s east coast and sea lanes. It also warned that should Indonesia exercise a dominant influence over PNG, the ‘range of issues over which differences could arise between Australia and PNG would … be considerably extended and would give rise to increased uncertainty in our strategic prospects’. The paper drew ministers’ attention to the fact that successive Australian governments had pursued a policy of ‘ensuring that PNG’s primary strategic relationship is with Australia and is seen by Indonesia to be so’. As long as Indonesia believed that Australia exercised ‘effective and favourable influence’ in Papua New Guinea it would not try to advance its own influence in the country.

The paper attached to Hayden’s Cabinet submission drew ministers’ attention to the conclusions of the Review of Australian Defence Capabilities (the Dibb report) which had been accepted by the Hawke Government as a document of fundamental significance in determining its defence policy. Paul Dibb had long been a leading advocate of the critical importance of geography in guiding a nation’s assessment of its strategic priorities. He had developed and publicised the concept of an area of ‘direct military interest’ for Australia and had represented this zone as Australia’s northern air and sea approaches and the island and archipelagic states to the north through which a threat could be mounted.8 The Dibb report, as quoted in the Cabinet submission, had judged that Australia ‘would be likely to have few options other than to support PNG’s territorial integrity if it were to be threatened’ but also judged that the ‘contingency of [a] major Indonesian attack on PNG lacks credibility’.9 The Dibb report, again as quoted in the Cabinet submission, had however, assessed that the ‘strategic significance of Papua New Guinea for Australia’s security was not of such a dimension as to require a comprehensive’, unqualified security commitment and that Australia’s ‘interests were served by elements of ambiguity’ in any undertaking to Papua New Guinea. At the same time, Australia ‘would not want Papua New Guinea to assume that it could provoke Indonesia safe in the knowledge that Australian military support would be forthcoming in all circumstances’.10

Returning to the question of how to respond to the Papua New Guinea draft proposal, Hayden argued that acceptance would disadvantage Australia in that the wording in the draft text was stronger than either the ANZUS Treaty or the Five Power Defence Arrangement and would be interpreted by other countries, notably Indonesia, as marking a major shift in Australia’s defence policy and posture ‘to a more offensive orientation’.11 He suggested the three most appropriate options were: to retain the wording of the 1977 Joint Statement; employ similar wording to that in the Five Power Defence Arrangements; or use a weaker form of wording than in the Five Power Defence Arrangements. The paper examined in detail the advantages and disadvantages of these three options.

Other departments objected to Hayden’s recommendation that Australia not go beyond the terms of the 1977 Joint Statement in responding to the PNG draft. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet argued that such a response ‘carries a high risk of affecting adversely PNG’s perception of the value of defence relations with Australia and also of exacerbating PNG’s suspicions that Australian interest in PNG’s future prospects is declining’. Defence agreed that ‘Australia’s strategic and defence policy objectives can best be maintained by providing PNG with a stronger undertaking’.11a

The decision reached by Cabinet clearly indicates that Hayden’s recommendation was rejected. The decision noted that Australia agreed in principle to the proposal for a Joint Declaration but rejected PNG’s suggestion that it be a treaty-level document. As to the proposed defence commitment, ministers rejected Hayden’s preferred option not to go beyond the words in the 1977 statement and agreed that the following text be proposed:

the two Governments will consult, at the request of either, about matters affecting their common security interests. In the event of external armed attack threatening the national sovereignty of either country, such consultation would be conducted for the purpose of each Government deciding what measures should be taken, jointly or separately, in relation to that attack.12

The decision also recommended that ‘it should be made clear to PNG that the … formulation does not necessarily imply the measures taken would be military measures and that they could be diplomatic ones’.13

In the ensuing negotiations Papua New Guinea accepted the text proposed by Australia and the Joint Declaration of Principles was signed on 9 December 1987 by Prime Minister Wingti and Prime Minister Hawke during Wingti’s visit to Canberra.14 The final text recognised that ‘each government had primary responsibility for its own security’ and valued their ‘historical links and shared strategic interests’. The two governments undertook to continue to engage in defence cooperation and reaffirmed the existing agreement and arrangements covering the status of service personnel, supply support arrangements and consultations on the deployment of Australian loan personnel to politically sensitive situations. The Joint Declaration then set out the terms of the defence commitment using the words approved by the Australian Cabinet. The JDP was not elevated to a treaty-level document as first sought by Papua New Guinea. However, by virtue of being signed by two Prime Ministers it had the status of a document of ‘political intent’, that is, that Australia and Papua New Guinea assumed a political obligation to respect the terms of the Declaration.

A new Joint Declaration of Principles was signed in May 2013 during the visit by Prime Minister Julia Gillard to Port Moresby.15 The new text noted that its undertakings would ‘build on’ the 1987 Joint Declaration of Principles. The 1987 commitment remains current and subsumed within the 2013 Declaration. The new Declaration noted that both countries were ‘committed to strengthening their enduring defence partnership’, particularly their ‘mutual security interests, including maritime and border security, regional peacekeeping and disaster relief ’.16 The emphasis was placed on the bilateral defence cooperation program rather than mechanisms for responding to threats to either country. Like its predecessor, the 2013 text is a declaration of political intent and is not of treaty-level status. However, again, the fact that the document carries the signature of two Prime Ministers means that there is a strong responsibility on the part of both countries to meet their obligations. Consistent with its undertakings in 1977 and in 1987, Australia has reserved the right to determine how to respond to possible external threats to Papua New Guinea.

Although the various statements of Australia’s commitment to the defence of Papua New Guinea could be described as being of ‘political intent’ rather than legally binding, this fact should not be interpreted as an indication of a declining Australian interest in the strategic importance of PNG in the region. In 1983 the Minister for Defence in the Hawke Government, Gordon Scholes, described Papua New Guinea as a ’major factor in Australia’s security. Its geographical location, the potential for difficulties in its border relations with Indonesia, historical ties and continuing Australian involvement there contribute to PNG’s abiding strategic importance for Australia’.17 The 1986 Dibb ‘Review of Australia’s Defence Capabilities’ described Australia as having a ‘special interest’ in Papua New Guinea and concluded that PNG was in a ‘sphere of primary strategic interest’.18 In 1989, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Gareth Evans, described ‘Indonesia and Papua New Guinea [as] of particular importance because of the inescapable geographical reality that any military threat to Australia – unlikely though that currently is – would almost certainly be posed from or through our north’.19 As noted in the Introduction, the Australian Defence White Paper, published in February 2016, argued that ‘Australia cannot be secure if our immediate neighbourhood, including Papua New Guinea … becomes a source of threat to Australia’.20

Australia has maintained high-level defence consultations as well as an active defence cooperation program aimed at providing technical and other military training and assistance to strengthen the capability of the PNGDF. It has pursued a policy of ensuring that it is PNG’s primary defence partner and, as a consequence, the government spends more of its defence cooperation funding with PNG than with any other country.21 In 2015–2016 the budget for the program was $40 million. This is in addition to a non-defence aid program of over $558 million in the same period. In its 2013 Defence White Paper, Papua New Guinea noted that ‘due to our historical, geographic and personal ties, Defence Cooperation with Australia remains the most important and most enduring partnership’.22 A bilateral defence ministers’ meeting between the two countries was held in Canberra in December 2011 where agreement was reached to hold an annual PNG– Australia security dialogue involving senior defence and foreign affairs officials.23


The place of Papua New Guinea in Australia’s security environment and thinking has evolved in parallel with the changing definition of Australia’s national interests and developments in the broader international security situation. Papua New Guinea is no longer seen as a shield or bulwark to protect Australia from invasion. Each country now assesses the security environment on the basis of its own national interests and sees a close, cooperative defence relationship as being advantageous to both nations. The closeness of Australia and Papua New Guinea, based on geography, history and social interaction, ensures that the two countries remain of unavoidable strategic importance to each other.

In July 1972, Michael Somare reflected on the internal problems facing his country and the relationship with Australia. He wrote in The Age:

Papua New Guinea has gained many advantages under Australian administration but it has also inherited many Australian made problems. It will not be enough for Australians to sit back when Papua New Guinea becomes independent and say – ‘Well, considering all the problems, I don’t think we did a bad job’. Australia will never be able to sit back contentedly while Papua New Guinea lies at its northern doorstep.24

Australia's Northern Shield?

   by Bruce Hunt