Having enjoyed prolonged and positive relations, the dominant international powers in the South Pacific region – traditional allies like Australia, the US, the UK and France – influenced PNG’s policy throughout the 20th century. However, recent years have also seen an increasing recognition of the importance of Asian and South-east Asian states to PNG’s development. This geopolitical shift is occurring in tandem with a renewed interest from PNG’s traditional allies. Western powers, led by the US, are currently working to rejuvenate their influence in Asia-Pacific.
FORCE OF MODERATION: Since achieving independence in 1975, PNG has earned a reputation on the international stage for exercising moderation in its approach to bilateral and multilateral issues. The country has also signed up to a wide variety of international treaties and organisations, a policy that has helped the country to establish itself as a bridge between Asia and the south-east Pacific.
However, since the foundation of PNG’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – now the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration – the Australian legacy has also been strong, tending to orientate PNG towards its neighbours in ways that have often been influenced by the outlook from Canberra. PNG has thus traditionally looked to Europe and the US, rather than to Asia or other Pacific nations, for partners and models.
As a result, PNG’s connections to its neighbour Indonesia, and northern Asian states such as China and Japan, have traditionally been weak.
In recent times, however, there have been signs that a greater fluidity in global affairs is also motivating a reassessment of PNG’s wider foreign relations. This is not entirely new – in the mid-1980s, for example, the government discussed a “Look North” policy that would strengthen relations with Asia.
ISLAND LIFE: PNG’s relations with other Pacific island nations have been growing in recent years. The country became a member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) – formalised in 2007 – along with Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. This established preferential trading between the nations, while also drawing in the independence movement in New Caledonia, an issue over which PNG has received praise from Paris for its moderation.
The country is also a member of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), which includes Australia and New Zealand. The forum’s island countries (FICs) have begun operating more as a distinct group, however, particularly within the UN, where they are members of the organisation of Pacific Small Islands Developing States (PSIDS), a grouping that does not include Australia or New Zealand. At the same time, PNG has been increasing its contacts in mainland Asia. The country is an observer at the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), while also being a member of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).
MARKET TIES: Companies from ASEAN nations have also become important partners in PNG’s economy. Malaysia’s Rimbunan Hijau, for example, is PNG’s largest logging operator, and also owns the country’s English language newspaper, The National.
Relations with China have also been growing, as has been evidenced by Chinese investment in PNG’s mining, engineering and infrastructure sectors. The military has also taken part in training activities with the Chinese army, in an effort to improve their defensive capabilities. Other countries neglected in Cold War times have also seen relations strengthen. Cuba now provides medical aid to PNG, while Russia has reengaged with the Pacific states in recent years, planning investment in the oil and gas sector in particular.
The PNG government has, however, been anxious to stress that these new engagements are not being undertaken at the expense of longer-standing friendships. This greater diversification in foreign policy is, rather, to be taken as a sign of the openness of the country to foreign investment and assistance, along with a growing maturity in pursuing its own interests.