The National – Tuesday, June 28, 2011
CHINA was one of the first nations to establish diplomatic ties with the fledging nation of 10,000 tribes back in 1976, a year after Independence.
We can only guess at what the motives were of this stoutly communist regime at the time because however ungainly this collection of tribal nations seemed, communist ideology was the least attractive of the world’s reigning political ideologies for it. The constitution the young nation adopted in August 1975 left no question about that.
Two years later, when Taiwan established a trade mission in Port Moresby, mainland China was glad it had established a prior mission. A fierce diplomatic war has been waged by the two countries on PNG soil ever since but the first round went to China when the government of Sir Michael Somare declared a one-China policy.
It is a policy that mainland China has fought a protracted and bitter diplomatic battle to protect and, to its credit, it has maintained to this day.
Although senior PNG politicians, led by Sir Michael Somare himself, have not been averse to seeking clandestine high level meetings with Taiwanese government officials over the years.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, China’s main focus and strategy in the region including PNG was to outdo and thwart Taiwan’s efforts to gain legitimacy and support from island nations.
This competition has driven the two countries throughout the Pacific and into the smallest of island nations where in December 2007, China established diplomatic relations with tiny Niue with a population of just 1,500 people.
While this was happening, PNG and the Pacific were only Australia’s backyard in the larger geo-political scheme of things. They were mainly off the radar of the big players like the United States except as an expanse of ocean where its military presence could be established, where its nuclear warheads could be exploded and the residual radioactive wastes transported or dumped without any concern for the feelings of and ill-effects such actions could produce among island inhabitants, and where from time to time it could berth its ships without declaring whether they carried dangerous nuclear warheads – endangering the lives of all in the event of mishap.
Things are a lot different nowadays. Quite suddenly Papua New Guinea and her sister island nations are gaining in status and stature. What was once ocean is suddenly showing up as a myriad of islands with natural resources in abundance and with self governing inhabitants who appear about to be snapped up by a fast-expanding world influence in China.
Suddenly, the region is becoming a contested zone and PNG is in the dead centre of it. Its abundant natural resources are needed by the insatiable industrial engines of China, India and South Korea.
While the tensions between the two Chinas continue on the home front across the Taiwanese straits, the diplomatic tussle between the two in the rest of the world and in PNG seems to have given way to this new drive by mainland China for raw materials and as a market for its finished products.
China has invested more than a billion US dollars in the Ramu nickle cobalt mine and is one of the biggest buyers of PNG’s liquefied natural gas.
China is going into Bougainville in a big way. This week it initialed several memorandums of understanding with the Autonomous Bougainville Government for closer and greater trade and commerce relations. This action, however, is not as recent as it might appear.
In 1986, President Momis, then as regional MP for Bougainville, had invited the Chinese as alternate developers to the “BCL pig” to mine the lucrative Panguna copper deposits. The desire, we are certain, would still be current.
China plans to do more and the PNG government is more than happy to encourage it.
And, that is what seems to be tipping the balance.
If PNG fell under the Chinese spell, it would place China at Australia’s doorstep. While, in business, Australia itself has gone into overdrive to do business with China, it is quite conscious of its own reasonable isolation as a member of the Western Alliance in this vast ocean where once it ruled supreme.
With China in the zigsaw, and all the strategic political and security interests at stake, Australia can only beg the United States for support and it would appear, Canberra’s dilemma is read by Washington.
It would appear the appeal has gone out later than it should have and the response has come a wee bit late.