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PNG from space

Neighbourhood watch on PNG’s border security

By Anthony Bergin and Sam Bateman

Papua New Guinea will rely heavily on Australia this week to provide security at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Port Moresby via the deployment of F/A-18 Hornets, a helicopter landing ship, other naval vessels and up to 1500 personnel.

But beyond protecting APEC leaders, PNG Defence Force commander Brigadier General Gilbert Toropo is urging Canberra to provide additional support. His wish list for Australia includes greater land mobility and helicopters flown by PNG personnel.

China’s activities in the South Pacific, including in PNG, have become a powerful bargaining chip in Port Moresby’s bid to receive greater defence support from Australia.

Former PNG defence chief Jerry Singirok recently said that while Australia was Port Moresby’s preferred military partner, China could step in if Canberra rebuffed PNG’s ambitions to more than double the size of its defence force to 10,000 personnel and equip it with modern hardware.

Last week’s decision by Scott Morrison to finalise a deal with his PNG counterpart, Peter O’Neill, for a “joint initiative” to redevelop the strategically important Lombrum naval base on Manus Island is a key move to head off any interest from China to develop port fac­ilities there.

Maritime and border security are priorities for PNG. One of the largest archipelagic states, it has a big exclusive economic zone of 3.1 million square kilometres. Illeg­al, unreported and unregulated fishing is PNG’s most serious maritime security threat.

National waters are rich in fisheries and the country could be losing considerable income from the lack of adequate surveillance and enforcement.

Some parts of the EEZ, including far-flung islands, are very remote. Surveillance and patrol of this large area to maintain sovereignty, protect resources and prevent illegal activity is a challenging task that hasn’t been performed well in recent years.

PNG has three main borders: with Australia, Indonesia and Solomon Islands. All three have security problems. The borders with Australia and Solomon ­Islands are across water. The long land border with Indonesia is vulnerable to illegal movement by sea at its northern and southern ends.

The borders with Indonesia and Solomon Islands aren’t well patrolled on the PNG side and are largely open to the uncontrolled movement of people and goods. The border with Australia across the Torres Strait is the best controlled of the country’s borders. But some illegal movement of people and goods, including drugs and firearms, still occurs.

High on PNG’s border security threats are those linked to the ­illegal movement of drugs, weapons, tobacco and people-smuggling and trafficking. There are also health and biosecurity threats.

The International Organisation for Migration has identified PNG as a people-smugglers’ destination. It’s close to Australia and has difficulty controlling its long, porous border with Indonesia.

PNG’s extensive coastline and lack of infrastructure add to the problems. Daru in the Torres Strait is believed to be a hot spot for the smuggling of drugs, arms and people to and from Australia and Indonesia.

Two years ago, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime identified the problem of human trafficking in PNG. It noted a US State Department report that Malaysian and Chinese logging companies and foreign business people reportedly arranged for foreign women to voluntarily enter PNG with fraudulent business or tourist arrival visas.

Illegal firearms are believed to be flown into PNG across all three of its borders, as well as directly into the state by sea.

Firearms are sought after for tribal fights, robbery, personal protection or protecting crops.

Two years ago the PNGDF apprehended an Indonesian boat carrying illegal small arms into Vanimo.

Older weapons and ammunition have been smuggled into PNG from Australia, reportedly in exchange for drugs.

According to the UNODC, the farming of cannabis in PNG has increased in the past 30 years and much of the product finds its way into Indonesia and Australia.

The UNODC has said methamphetamine was being moved through PNG from east and Southeast Asia to destinations elsewhere. Three years ago, Indonesian officials reportedly complained about the level of smuggling of goods out of PNG, including marijuana.

Australia has a vested interest in PNG’s border and maritime security. If its borders and waters aren’t secure, then illegal immigrants, drugs and other prohibited goods can readily move through PNG into Australia.

The PNGDF has about 2500 personnel, most serving in the Land Element, (the PNG army).

The Land Element comprises two infantry battalions of the ­Pacific Islands Regiment based in Port Moresby and Wewak, plus several supporting units.

It has forward operating bases in Kiunga and Vanimo tasked with conducting patrols along the land border with Indonesia.

The Maritime Element has four Pacific-class patrol boats. These are being progressively replaced by Guardian-class vessels, the first of which, HMPNGS Ted Diro, will be commissioned soon.

It also operates three Balikpapan-class landing craft.

Naval bases in Port Moresby and Lombrum in Manus are rundown. The Port Moresby base is to be reclaimed for port development without a satisfactory alternative identified so far.

The Air Transport Wing is small. Its role is to support army operations with transport, air ­­resupplyresupply and medical evacuation capabilities. It is to acquire several P-750 XSTOL utility aircraft from New Zealand.

Australia since 2012 has leased two civilian helicopters for PNGDF, which are flown and maintained by a private company in Port Moresby. Air surveillance of PNG’s large area of maritime jurisdiction is conducted only occasionally.

At independence in 1975, the PNGDF comprised about 3750 in all ranks. Because of the high costs of supporting a force of this size and morale problems associated with maintaining discipline among under­employed soldiers, it was progressively run down to its present size.

But the PNG defence white paper released in 2013 sets out an ambitious plan to increase the force to 5000 personnel by last year and by 2030 to have 10,000 personnel.

The white paper says the ­capacity of PNG’s security agencies has declined considerably since independence, causing significant security gaps along ­national land, air and maritime borders. It noted deficiencies in national air and maritime capabilities for effective border and maritime security.

It observed that porous and uncontrolled borders had allowed transnational crime, such as the ­illegal smuggling of small arms, light weapons and contraband to continue unabated. It pointed out that poor border control had permitted the widespread plundering of the country’s fish stocks and timber.

Australia’s Defence Co-operation Program with PNG is worth $42.7 million this financial year. Much of this is directed towards training and exercises. Australia’s 2016 defence white paper commits Australia to increase this program, in particular by assisting the PNGDF to rebuild its maritime security capability.

PNG is to receive four of the 21 new Guardian-class patrol boats being built to replace the ageing Pacific-class patrol boats given by Australia to Pacific Islands countries more than 25 years ago. The new patrol boats are part of the ­Pacific Maritime Security Program. Australia has committed $2 billion to this program across the next 30 years.

As part of the PMSP, Australia will provide up to 1400 hours of aerial surveillance each year across the central and western ­Pacific through two dedicated long-range aircraft based in the region.

Building a joint naval base on Manus will boost security in Australia’s maritime approaches and enhance PNG’s to conduct surveillance of its far-flung exclusive economic zone.

But it won’t be cheap. The Lombrum base is in a poor state and Manus is remote and has high support costs. A new wharf will be required to accommodate major naval units as well as a refuelling facility.

PNG’s demands on Australia for increased defence assistance stand to increase significantly in the future. In meeting these ­demands, we need to make sure that the assistance we provide also provides value for Australia.

We should be encouraging a clear focus on operations to maintain PNG’s maritime and border security.

PNGDF thinking and strategy tend to be dominated by the Land Element. Partly this is a consequence of numbers, but it’s also part of tradition and the PNGDF’s role in national development and maintaining internal security, particularly in the heavily populated Highlands region.

Historically, the Maritime ­Element and Air Transport Wing have been the under-resourced poor cousins of the army.

Surprisingly for a country with such a large area of maritime jurisdiction, PNG lacks maritime awareness, although the people of its coastal and island provinces have a long maritime tradition.

Australia should assist PNG in developing a maritime strategy to protect its extensive maritime interests. In the longer term, PNG’s mari­time and border security may be best provided by splitting the Maritime Element from the PNGDF to form a PNG coast guard with its own command arrangements, priorities and policies.

This week’s APEC has provided the trigger for improving PNG’s port and maritime security, but so far only in and around Port Moresby.

The challenge will be to ensure that the security lessons learned and best practice developed while preparing for APEC spread to the rest of the country and are sustained after the APEC leaders’ summit.

Sam Bateman is a professorial research fellow, Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security, University of Wollongong. Anthony Bergin is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the Australian National University’s National Security College.

Originally published by: The Australian on 12 Nov 2018