Australia and Papua New Guinea poised to sign major bilateral security agreement

10:10 am on 5 December 2023

Exclusive by ABC PNG correspondent Tim Swanston and foreign affairs reporter Stephen Dziedzic

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape at the MSG meeting in Port Vila

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape at the MSG meeting in Port Vila Photo: RNZ Pacific / Kelvin Anthony

Australia and Papua New Guinea are poised to sign a major bilateral security agreement this week as PNG Prime Minister James Marape visits Canberra for talks with Anthony Albanese.

The ABC understands the agreement will be signed by both prime ministers on Thursday, alongside key ministers from both countries.

The agreement is expected to focus heavily on Papua New Guinea's internal security, with PNG looking to Australia to do more to help train and bolster its police force.

Papua New Guinea has been grappling with escalating tribal violence and an influx of high calibre weapons.

A round of tribal violence in August left dozens dead in PNG's highland region.

PNG Deputy Prime Minister John Rosso told the ABC that the agreement would aim to build the capability of both the PNG military, as well as the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC).

"Internal security remains one of our biggest issues in the country," Rosso said.

"Part of the negotiations of the bilateral treaty agreement is focused on assisting us, the capabilities of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force and police."

PNG, which has a population of about 12 million, wants to increase its police service from around 6,000 members to 26,000.

Australian Federal Police do work in Papua New Guinea, but only as unarmed advisors, following a 2005 PNG Supreme Court challenge.

"Part of the agreement is also for the upscale of the Bomana Police College, to ensure that we pass out over 1,000 police recruits every year to achieve those targets," Rosso said.

"Not just any ordinary recruit, but good, screened, properly trained recruits to combat any internal issues we have here."

The federal government will be pleased to finally land the agreement with Papua New Guinea after months of sometimes difficult negotiations.

Concerns of encroachment on rights

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese flagged the pact during an historic visit to PNG early this year, and the federal government initially wanted to wrap up negotiations by June.

But the talks stalled in the wake of controversy generated by PNG's defence cooperation agreement (DCA) with the United States, which was signed in May.

Prime Minister James Marape also said he was concerned that the initial wording in the Australian pact "encroached into (PNG's) sovereign rights."

The US pact could still be tested in PNG's Supreme Court, while the opposition accused Marape of drawing Papua New Guinea into broader geopolitical turmoil.

In August local media also reported that PNG's foreign affairs secretary and lead negotiator Elias Wohengu was at "a sort of impasse" with Australia over several matters in the agreement.

Wohengu also said that the pact would be called a "framework agreement" rather than a "treaty" - although Australian officials have insisted that it will remain legal binding and have been adamant it has not been diluted in any way.

A draft of the document was finally put in front of both cabinets last month.

Australia's finalisation of its agreement with PNG comes after China signed a police cooperation deal with PNG's neighbour, Solomon Islands, earlier this year.

Last month Mr Marape told the ABC his country was caught in a "confluence of interests" in the region, but said PNG's relationship with Australia ranked as number one.

"Whatever we put into paper … will be an agreement that consolidates our two nations relations in the middle of many, many bilateral relationships that are now emerging in Papua New Guinea," Marape said.

"In the Indo-Pacific conversation, we are caught in the confluence of interests in the Pacific and Asia."

"We know who our priority relationships are and Australia ranks number one, in my view."

"What we need to put together doesn't dilute PNG's bilateral relations with other nations we relate to, but at the same time entrenches PNG's own relations with Australia."

- This story was first published by ABC.