ANALYSIS: What Do Closer PNG-Beijing Ties Mean for Australia?

This year has seen riots, looting and government instability in PNG. Beijing is potentially taking advantage of this climate to increase its influence.
ANALYSIS: What Do Closer PNG-Beijing Ties Mean for Australia?
People run with merchandise as crowds leave shops with looted goods amid a state of unrest in Port Moresby on Jan.10, 2024. (Andrew Kutan/AFP via Getty Images)

January 2024 was a big month for Papua New Guinea, with deadly riots threatening Prime Minister James Marape’s tenuous hold on power.

On Jan. 10, riots erupted in Port Moresby when 200 police, military, and corrections officers went on strike to demonstrate against payroll glitches which caused significant pay deductions of up to 50 percent for public servants.

This demonstration created a security vacuum, and saw hundreds of residents taking advantage of police being on strike, leading to riots on the streets and looting.

It is estimated the chaos led to 22 people losing their lives across the country, and as a result, Mr. Marape declared a 14-day state of emergency in the capital. Underlying social issues of high unemployment and widespread poverty have helped fuel these riots.

Beijing Proposes Security Pact

Amongst the chaos of the month, it was also revealed that Beijing had made overtures to PNG to develop a security pact with the country, despite PNG already having security pacts with Australia and the United States.
Foreign Minister Justin Tkachenko told Reuters on Jan. 29 that Beijing had offered PNG a security and policing deal back in Sept. 2023.
This deal saw Beijing offering to assist PNG’s police force with training, equipment, and surveillance, similar to the deal it offered the Solomon Islands following riots in that country in 2022.

Prime Minister Marape’s Hold on Power Under Pressure

Mr. Marape is currently grappling with several challenges. Firstly, defections by 12 MPs from his government to the opposition have weakened his position, leading to an expected vote of no confidence in his leadership expected to take place on Feb. 13, 2024.

These defections and the expected vote of no confidence were triggered by concerns over resource distribution, alleged involvement in controversial payments, and overall dissatisfaction with his performance.

During a vote of no confidence, any member of Parliament can call for a vote to remove the current leadership, potentially leading to a change in the prime minister.

Mr. Marape is seen as a strong Australian ally, evidenced by his historic Feb. 8 address to the Australian Parliament where he described the relationship between the two countries, “One is stuck with family forever … our two countries are stuck with each other. We have no choice but to get along.”

But with a vote of no confidence looming, Mr. Marape may soon no longer be prime minister, or even if he remains in the job, his power base will be weakened and will open him up to future challenges.

Amidst this political instability, a pro-Beijing candidate for prime minister could emerge and potentially undermine the strong Australia-PNG relationship.

Should Australia be Worried?

Yes and no.

PNG is only four kilometres from Australia’s northernmost border, Saibai Island in Queensland.

If PNG were to fall under Beijing’s influence, it could be another Solomon Islands situation, potentially paving the way for another communist military presence on Australia’s doorstep.

The Solomon Islands deal allows Beijing to station troops, naval ships, and weapons on the island—drawing comparisons to the situation around the South China Sea.

The official line from the PNG government’s foreign minister so far, is that, “We deal with China at this stage only at economic and trade level. They are one of our biggest trading partners, but they have offered to assist our policing and security on the internal security side.”

PNG is also considering whether Beijing’s offer duplicates security and policing assistance already being offered by Australia and the United States.

It should also be noted that the PNG government recently signed a security pact with Australia in Dec. 2023 and maintains a Defence Cooperation Agreement with the United States signed in May 2023.

Any security pact between PNG and Beijing, however, could impact these existing security pacts.

The United States has urged PNG to reject the CCP security deal, highlighting that it could come with consequences and costs.

In theory, the security pacts PNG currently has with Australia and the United States seem robust.

But the political instability that regularly engulfs the country as well as endemic corruption that makes politicians open to bribes as evidenced in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index potentially makes PNG susceptible to an increased Beijing presence.
Andrew Stacey is a reporter based in Melbourne, Australia. He has extensive experience in market and data analytics.