23 Dec 2020
China's deal with PNG will deplete fishing stock and pose border risk
By Anthony Bergin and Jeffrey Wall
China is increasing its efforts to undermine our influence in Papua New Guinea. PNG signed a Belt and Road Initiative agreement with China two years ago. It’s now the scene of intense Chinese activity. In a geostrategic move last month, China signed a memorandum of understanding with PNG’s fisheries minister and the governor of Western Province to build a $200 million "comprehensive multi-functional fishery industrial park" on Daru Island.
It's a development designed to throw Australia off balance in a sensitive location: the town of Daru is the closest PNG community to Australia and only 200 kilometres from the Australian mainland. It’s very close to the islands of the Torres Strait within our northern border. Daru is a designated PNG port of entry and the entrance to Western Province. But there’s no real PNG assets to monitor the area, especially Indonesian fishers coming across for illegal trade in beche-de-mer.
PNG's patrol boats can't patrol in the southern border area between the Indonesian border and Daru because the waters are poorly charted and shallow. Compared to the Australian border, the PNG-Indonesia border in the area is relatively porous.
In June, China signed an agreement with PNG for substantial volumes of PNG seafood to be exported directly to China. The new fishing memorandum of understanding with China's Fujian Zhonghong Fishery Company was sponsored by the Chinese government. It was announced by China's Ministry of Commerce, supported by Beijing's powerful ambassador in Port Moresby, Xue Bing. He declared that the investment “will definitely enhance PNG's ability to comprehensively develop and utilise its own fishery resources”.
There’s a real question why China would build such a huge fishing operation in a place where there’s not a lot of fish, apart from some crays, beche-de-mer, mackerel and snappers. But what marine living resources are there would be at risk: a Chinese fishing operation would vacuum everything up, putting at risk the subsistence living of coastal communities. Chinese fishing fleets have devastated local fish stocks in the offshore zones of many impoverished nations.
“We have to stand up and voice our concerns about it, because it will be on our doorstep,” said Torres Shire mayor Vonda Malone. “It will affect our communities, our people, our families, our resources. We are dealing with a country that does not have the same values as us.”
China leads the world in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Its fishing fleet numbers up to 800,000 boats. China depleted its domestic fisheries long ago. The Chinese government heavily subsidises its fleet and uses its militia fishing fleet to push its illegal claims in the East and South China Seas.
A large Chinese fishing fleet in the region poses maritime law and order problems for Australia. We could see China's maritime militia, under the cover of fishing vessels, drawing in China's coastguard. There’s a Border Force presence on Thursday Island. It’s focused on illegal fishing, particularly by Indonesian fisherman, and on stopping drug and human smuggling from PNG to northern Australia.
If the project goes ahead, Chinese fishing boats will be active in the seas around Daru and in the Torres Strait. Border Force will need to decide which fishing boats and crew are from PNG and which might be fronts for Chinese operators from the “multi-faceted” facility.
Chinese fishing may not strike many as an issue worthy of immediate concern for the Morrison government. But if the project goes beyond a memorandum of understanding and China is permitted to build a port in a location close to Australia then we’ve really lost it when it comes to countering Chinese influence in PNG.
It’s not in our strategic interest to have a major Chinese government resource exploration project right on our northern doorstep. The Torres Strait already presents Australia with a number of border security issues. Foreign Minister Marise Payne has said that Border Force vessels would strictly police the Torres Strait’s traditional-only fishing rules.
But if the Morrison government doesn't want an increased Chinese presence in the Torres Strait we should be exposing the lack of economic viability of this Chinese investment given the absence of significant commercial fisheries.
We should also be highlighting how China weaponises its dealings with sub-national actors in the Pacific, in this case Western Province. Last year we saw the mooted leasing of the entire island of Tulagi in the Solomon Islands by a Beijing-based company with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party. The whole notion was ridiculous given landowner rights in the Solomon Islands and a significant overreach by China.
The location of China’s planned investment in the Torres Strait, potentially one of the most exposed parts of Australia, requires the Morrison government to urgently engage with PNG's national and provincial leaders on what assistance we can provide as part of an integrated development strategy.
That engagement needs to have at its core projects that directly enhance the living standards of one of the most impoverished areas of PNG. But it must be done without delay. The Belt and Road program in PNG is increasingly targeting our strategic interests and relationship with our closest neighbour.