As Papua New Guinea hosts some of the world’s most powerful leaders for the APEC summit this week, Australia’s close defence ties with its Pacific neighbours will be on show.
The Australian Defence Force has 1500 personnel stationed in Port Moresby for the event, as part of an estimated $130 million of in-kind support that Australia is providing to assist with security.
The war ship HMAS Adelaide has been moored off the coast of Port Moresby for just over a week, and helicopters have been taking off from its deck to run practice flights over the city.
Australian patrol boats will be ensuring maritime security during the summit, while fighter jets will be securing the airspace above the city.
The chief of joint operations of the PNG Defence Force, Colonel Ezekia Wenzel said the ADF was also working with Papua New Guinea on high-end security risks, such as terrorism.
“As a young nation, to stage the APEC is pretty difficult; we have never had this experience before,” he said.
“Therefore we very much value the preparation and training that was given.”
Both countries say the security operation is a sign of the close relationship between the two defence forces.
The operation is set against a backdrop of a multi-billion-dollar pivot back to the Pacific by Australia, in a move being seen as an attempt to counter China’s growing interest in the region.
“We think our relationship with Papua New Guinea is probably our most important regional defence relationship,” Major General Paul McLachlan, the senior ADF officer on the ground in Port Moresby, said.
“So it’s very important for us to be here when Papua New Guinea needs us.
We might not be the biggest economy but certainly we are absolutely prepared to commit our people, form the necessary relationships and share the risks that good nations share with each other.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will both be in Papua New Guinea this weekend for the APEC Leaders’ Summit.
In the lead-up to the event, Australia and Papua New Guinea have agreed to develop a joint naval base on Manus Island, and Mr Morrison has announced a permanent Defence Force training team for the Pacific will be established.
The joint naval base at Lombrum on Manus Island will provide important maritime security for PNG, against things like illegal fishing, while giving Australia an important strategic foothold in the area.
Lowy Institute Defence and Asian Security analyst Euan Graham said Lombrum was an ideal location to project naval force across the western Pacific.
“Obviously in the background of that is the strategic shadow of China, which is looming larger in Australia’s near approaches,” he said.
“PNG is one country where China has gained an influence recently and there is, if you like, an action-reaction type dynamic.”
He said China had expressed an interest in investing to upgrade the Manus facility.
“That I think clearly put pressure on Australia to get there first,” Mr Graham said.
“We have had a very long and very deep security relationship over many decades and this is a culmination in many ways of that work,” he said.
“But it’s a proof that the Papua New Guinea Defence Force and the Australian Defence Force are great partners and can deliver great results together.”
The PNG Foreign Minister, Rimbink Pato, was one of the politicians on board for the tour.
Just weeks ago, he was welcoming the Chinese Foreign Minister to PNG, but while standing on Australia’s ship he was touting the importance of the defence relationship.
“We are entering into partnership with many countries, but Australia has a unique role to play in this country, in various areas where it has been working with us for a long, long time.”
However, he would not be drawn on reports PNG was asking Australia to help increase PNG’s defence capabilities and assets.
“There’s ongoing work, there’s close cooperation between the Australian Defence Force and the PNG Defence Force, similar arrangements are with the police, so it’s not to say it’s just starting now; it started in 1975.”
Mr Graham said interest from China was giving Pacific nations an extra bargaining tool.
“It’s a card that they can play to bring Australia back in a more serious way,” he said.
“So from that point of view it’s not been unhelpful to their interests, but of course it’s going to be a very difficult balancing act.”