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China Filling the Pacific Vacuum

By Mr. Mohammad Tahboub

Published: March 28, 2013

In a speech given on March 19, 2013 to the
Pacific Islands Society at the School of Oriental
and African Studies (SOAS), the Papua New
Guinea (PNG) High Commissioner to the United
Kingdom, Her Excellency Winnie Anna Kiap,
stressed that the Pacific Islands region is
witnessing increased competition by major
powers seeking strategic influence in the Asia-
Pacific. She noted that this is happening in an
era of fading British influence across the region.
In her words, when a vacuum is left, another
country moves in to fill it. And, at least one
country moving in is China, which she said PNG
is beginning to like.

While the High Commissioner welcomed
renewed Western interest in Papua New
Guinea, she warned, What Britain needs to
realise is that in a very short while, we are going
to be thinking differently because of their
(Chinese) influence. In this way, she
highlighted that China has the upper edge in
the PNG power play and that the West cannot
gain back its advantage easily.

According to the High Commissioner, Britains
decline in the Pacific paralleled an overall
decline in the influence and relevance of the
Commonwealth, The Commonwealth has faded
from the Pacific and as a consequence the
(United Nations) became important. However,
she said that her country remains open to
relationships that would benefit their people. For
this reason, she was positive about the
indications that Britain is starting to reprioritize
the Pacific regardless of the motivations
behind that move.

With that, the High Commissioner moved on to
address the issue of development. From her
perspective, PNG has set its own development
goals according to its own demands
because goals imposed from outside are most
likely to cause failure rather than development
as they are not likely to be sustainable.
Nevertheless, she expressed a willingness to
work in development partnerships with other
countries as long as there are guarantees in
place that bilateral approaches must be
aligned with development strategies of PNG.

On the subject of Australia, the High
Commissioner criticized historic situations in
which its vulnerability in terms of its
development fund forced it to contracting
itself out as a partner in solving immigration
problems of another state. She noted that PNG
has been a victim of these issues before citing
the example of PNG being forced to allow
Australian police to come in, but the police
were not subject to our domestic laws. They
could do whatever crimes they could commit
but they could not be brought to justice. She
then went on to accuse he neighbor of

Mohammad Tahboub is the Editor-in-Chief of
the SOAS Spirit.
The Wire
Observations from Foreign Correspondents
Pacific Islands Society | The Wire | March 28, 2013
Returning to the immigration issues, she
pointed out that Australia has been playing
host to asylum seekers (in PNG) that were really
heading towards Australia. She said it seems
as if asylum seekers are being used as a
bargaining chip in a game in which (Australia)
says: Take our asylum seekers and as much as
possible we will assist you in your development
programs. This echoed the topic of her speech
by illustrating how development aid can be
used to undermine state sovereignty in
vulnerable Pacific Islands countries.

Though the High Commissioner detailed some
flaws in Australia-PNG relations, her speech
could not be characterized as one meant to
blame Australia. In fact, much of her focus was
on the challenges her country faces as it
attempts to move on from a 20-year history of
poor financial management and undefendable
corruption. In her opinion, to succeed, her
country needs to create a new era in which
smart leadership guarantees the rights of
future generations.

Yet, these efforts may not be enough to counter
the serious non-traditional security challenges
that threaten human security in PNG. As climate
change effects begin to take hold, the High
Commissioner said a number of new security
threats are emerging. For example, she said her
country is facing a rising risk of malaria as
mosquitoes are themselves adapting to climate
change by surviving in high altitudes where the
bulk of our population lives. Separately, she
pointed out that infectious disease is also
emerging as a serious security threat. In fact,
she said that the spread of virus HIV was
outpacing all mitigation programs. The High
Commissioner explained that bureaucratic
methods prevent officials from being on the
ground to address this emerging crisis
because they are instead relegated to their
offices to complete onerous paperwork.

The High Commissioner closed her remarks by
commenting on the importance of her countrys
relations with Indonesia. In response to a
question from the audience, she described
PNG relations with their neighbor and regional
power as a very sensitive one. While she said
that the locals on both sides of the border
remain ethnic Papuans, she also demurred that
her country has very little ability to project its
influence on the Indonesian side. Her final
admission that it is important to keep good
relations with all neighbours when you are in
PNGs position probably accurately reflected
the geo-strategic reality. But, perhaps not such
a positive outlook for human security in Papua
New Guinea.

The views expressed are those of the author.