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From the ocean to the east, it looks like Australia's Pacific policy is all at sea

Sydney Morning Herald - December 20, 2019

Ben Bohane – For decades, Papua New Guinean troops say they have watched as Indonesian forces violated PNG sovereignty "up to a dozen times per year".

At times the TNI (Indonesian armed forces) crossed the border between Indonesian Papua and PNG to hunt animals. Sometimes they entered to intimidate refugees living along the border.

The PNG Defence Force (PNGDF) has long viewed such TNI actions as part of a campaign of psychological warfare designed to remind Papuans just how vulnerable they are to Indonesia's military might.

"The Indonesians are now using drones to spy over our territory," the official says. "But they still sometimes sneak over into our side. It is very frustrating for us because we have no air power to counter it."

Former PNGDF Brigadier-General Jerry Singirok, who commanded the nation's forces in the late '90s, believes his country should immediately act to address security issues on the border with Indonesia.

"It is porous," he says. "Illicit activities from arms and drug trade to people smuggling and illegal trade and exploitation have gone undeterred, thus giving rise to international operatives who target PNG as a safe place to hibernate and do business unabated.

"The PNG-Indonesia land border that spans over 750 kilometres is unprotected and the 200 [nautical] mile exclusive economic zone has no security cover, cyber or maritime. Successive governments in PNG have given very little attention and investment in national security and it has become the biggest threat to our national interest."

Australia's position on the issue of Papua is clear: "Australia's long-standing policy is that it unreservedly recognises Indonesia's territorial integrity and sovereignty over the Papua provinces, as underlined in the 2006 Lombok Treaty."

Yet it also spends $42 million per year on the Australian Defence Cooperation Program with Papua New Guinea.

A spokesperson for the Department of Defence said Australian forces "do not directly support or accompany the PNGDF on operations along its border with Indonesia".

The rising threat of Islamist terrorism from the Indonesian side of the border is another issue troubling its near-neighbour. The Defence spokesperson said the Australian government was "aware of reports of the arrest of terrorism suspects in Indonesian Papua" and will continue to work with Indonesia "closely to counter terrorism and violent extremism".

While recent Australian governments have actively pushed back against growing Chinese influence in the Pacific, both major parties remain largely silent on the increasingly tense situation on the only land border between Asia and the Pacific.

One of the reasons Pacific nations like Vanuatu are turning to China is because they fear Jakarta more than Beijing. As previously reported in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, China is making a bold play for influence in Bougainville, the resource-rich PNG-governed territory that looks set to become the world's newest nation after its people voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence earlier this month.

For years Pacific leaders have been telling Australia at annual Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) gatherings that the two most serious security threats in the region are climate change and events in West Papua, yet Australia insists Chinese influence is the more pressing concern.

On climate change, the Australian government claims it is working proactively with its Pacific allies. "Climate change was identified in the 2016 Defence White Paper as one of the factors that will contribute to state fragility – including within Australia's immediate neighbourhood – and exacerbate the challenges of population growth and environmental degradation," a spokesperson for Defence said in a statement.

"Climate change-related risks are regularly reviewed as part of Defence's planning processes.

"As part of the Australian government's climate change effort, Defence is working with its Pacific partners to find solutions to help address the security impacts of climate change and build resilience, including through strategic dialogue with security leaders at the Joint Heads of Pacific Security event, Defence cooperation programs and new measures under the Pacific Step-Up."

Pacific leaders are mostly unconvinced. The PIF meeting this year was an unmitigated disaster for Australia, prompting normally jovial and non-confrontational Pacific leaders into calling out Prime Minister Scott Morrison, with host Tuvalu saying: "You're worried about your economy. I'm worried about the survival of my people."

Fiji's PM called him a "bully" while Kiribati's former president Anote Tong claimed "China is now the lesser evil compared to Australia".

While these issues are fraught with diplomatic pitfalls, there are simpler ways Australia can strengthen ties with its Pacific neighbours.

Almost every day in Port Vila, Vanuatu, Australian container ships arrive full of Australian produce for supermarkets, hardware stores and other shops. These same ships then return to Australia largely empty of any island produce. The trade is almost all one-way.

For islanders, trade is not just about business but about relationships and culture. Perhaps the PM could take the heads of Coles and Woolworths on his next trip to help place one trade item from each neighbouring Pacific country into their supply chains. Australia could buy PNG coffee, Solomons tuna, Vanuatu kava and Fijian sugar.

How about creating a Pacific Village in Brisbane and Sydney, with peppercorn rents so they have a focal point to bring in produce at wholesale prices for national distribution just as Chinatowns do in each city?

At the same time, a stream of Australian tourists arrive at Port Vila airport getting visas on arrival, while a small straggle of Pacific islanders goes the other way, arriving at Australian airports having completed onerous and costly visa applications just to visit.

What kind of family demands you get a visa before visiting? This scene is replicated across the Pacific islands.

It is just one way in which Australia's Pacific "step up" is missing the most important and obvious elements – policy that actually embraces our neighbours at a time when they now have alternatives.

By contrast, China wants to buy almost anything the Pacific produces and gives its citizens visas on arrival, as does much of Europe.

Morrison has been putting in "face time" and engaging leaders in a way no Australian PM has done before, having understood the Pacific is a region which operates on personal relationships, not ideology.

But in calling our Pacific neighbours "family" as the Morrison government does, the question is also being asked by islanders: "What kind of family demands you get a visa before visiting?"

According to the most recent immigration statistics, nearly 10,000 Malaysians were recorded as having overstayed visas in 2016-17, together with 6500 Chinese nationals and 5170 from the United States, yet there has been no change to their visa requirements.

More than 40 countries get a visa exemption when visiting Australia, but none of our Pacific neighbours do. It seems our Home Affairs Department remains terrified that a few islanders might overstay if we relaxed visa requirements.

They mainly want to visit relatives and have a holiday, or do seasonal work or maybe study and then go home.

When asked if Australia was considering relaxing visa requirements as part of its Pacific Step-Up, a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said: "Australia operates two temporary Pacific labour mobility programs, that help fill labour shortages in Australia and provide additional opportunities for workers to earn income and develop skills.

"Savings and remittances from Australia's labour mobility initiatives pay for housing, education and support communities in Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste."

Polynesians have access to Australia through the back door via New Zealand and Micronesians can all live and work in America, but Melanesians are afforded no such opportunities with Australia, apart from a nascent (and valued) seasonal labour scheme.

Our Melanesian neighbours can travel visa-free across Asia and Europe but not, it seems, to their "family" friend Australia.Australia, which has no voice in the region because of Coalition government cuts to the ABC, is losing the Pacific. It is losing it because its immigration policies remain discriminatory, it is not buying enough of their stuff and it is not acting on their stated security concerns.

And Australia keeps telling them they should be worried about China.

[Ben Bohane is an Australian journalist based in Vanuatu with 25 years' experience covering Pacific nations, including Bougainville's civil war.]

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/world/oceania/from-the-ocean-to-the-east-it-looks-like-australia-s-pacific-policy-is-all-at-sea-20191220-p53lrd.html