PNG border security a key strategic interest for Australia

Australia must do more to shore up the security of its northern neighbour

Anthony Bergin, Sam Bateman

Government and governance, International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific

16 November 2018

Drugs, weapons, people-smuggling and biosecurity risks make Papua New Guinea’s porous land and maritime borders a serious concern for Australian policymakers, Anthony Bergin and Sam Bateman write.

As a backgrounder to the APEC meeting in Port Moresby this week, we recently set out in The Australian some of the broad maritime and border security issues Papua New Guinea faces.

Here we’d like to focus in a little more detail on the increasing national security challenges that PNG’s borders pose for the country’s government.

Indirectly there are serious consequences for Australia if PNG’s borders aren’t secure. PNG is our nearest neighbour and it’s not too difficult to move people and goods that have illegally entered PNG on to Australia.

Providing security at PNG’s borders is difficult and requires a large commitment from the country’s scarce administrative, security and law enforcement resources.

PNG’s major border security threats are linked to a range of illicit activities such as smuggling of drugs, weapons, tobacco and people, as well as health and biosecurity risks.

Life on both sides of PNG’s borders with Indonesia, Solomon Islands and Australia is intertwined in terms of culture, family and economics. And transactions and movements at the country’s borders have been growing.

More on this: How clientelism keeps Papua New Guinea poor and poorly governed

The 720-kilometre border with Indonesia is the one that most requires protection. It is mainly a land boundary, except for a small stretch where the Fly River marks the border.

Indonesia also attaches high importance to the border and in recent years has undertaken major infrastructure and social development projects in the area. Indonesia is now establishing bases every 10 kilometres on its side of the border. These developments have not been matched on the PNG side.

Apart from the northern border post at Wutung, the border is largely open to the uncontrolled movement of people and goods by both land and sea, which poses a high quarantine risk to PNG.

Boats make illegal crossings at night, and contraband is smuggled in along the northern and southern maritime borders. Illegal crossings also occur by canoe along the river systems around the southern part of the land border.

PNG has limited surveillance capabilities on sea, land, and air along the Indonesian border.

In the south, Daru is a designated PNG port of entry and is the entrance to Western Province. But it seems the government has no real assets to monitor the area, especially boats coming along the coast from Indonesia.

PNG’s border with Australia is managed under the Torres Strait Treaty, which establishes several maritime boundaries between the two countries and addresses a range of related issues, including sovereignty over islands, fishing rights and protection of the marine environment.

The treaty is complex. It creates four different kinds of maritime boundaries and limits, including a zone for protecting the traditional way of life and the livelihoods of local inhabitants, allowing free movement and access to fishing grounds. Under the treaty, ‘traditional inhabitants’ come from 13 villages in PNG.

Day-to-day negotiations on border issues are conducted by treaty liaison officers appointed by each country.

More on this: Power plays in Indonesian waters

The border is the best controlled of Papua New Guinea’s borders, but some illegal movement of goods and people still occurs.

PNG has no resources to mirror the patrolling that takes place on the Australian side of the border. In the Torres Strait Treaty villages there’s no network of border liaison officers (or quarantine officers) like Australia has on its side.

Australia will need to maintain its efforts to work collaboratively with PNG on border security. The joint cross-border patrols that occur several times a year to mutually protect the shared border might, for example, be expanded to areas outside the Torres Strait protected zone.

No patrols are conducted in the ‘dog leg’ of PNG’s exclusive economic zone in the western Torres Strait, which isn’t covered by the Torres Strait Treaty. A high level of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing is believed to occur, including by fishing vessels from Indonesia and by licensed PNG-flagged vessels. Some form of trilateral cooperation for enforcement in the area would seem appropriate.

PNG’s boundary agreement with Solomon Islands isn’t yet in force, but both countries respect the integrity of a maritime boundary that’s around 1,800 kilometres long.

The border has been problematic in the past, but since the end of hostilities on Bougainville, it’s reverted to its role as a peaceful and artificial dividing line between related communities. Movement of goods and people across the border is virtually uncontrolled on the PNG side. For example, there’s currently no border post at Kangu Beach between PNG and Solomon Islands.

In the case of the southern border with Solomon Islands, unauthorised movements of people and goods occur. There are no registration cards for border crossings. Beer is apparently a border currency: the beer is stronger and cheaper in Solomon Islands. Illegal homebrew also comes in.

More on this: What legacy has Australia left the Solomon Islands?

In effect, PNG’s southern border is self-regulating, and night-time crossings from Solomon Islands are common. In the event of a security, humanitarian or heath crisis in Bougainville, many PNG citizens would seek refuge across the border, as occurred during the armed conflict in Bougainville in the 1990s.

Uncontrolled border movements, particularly across the borders with Indonesia and Solomon Islands, mean that PNG is both missing out on possible customs revenue and being exposed to illegal imports such as drugs and arms, as well as the unrecorded entry of people.

PNG agencies working on the borders are severely starved of equipment and funding. One positive development here is the report that Australia will commit hundreds of millions of dollars towards a new multi-nation investment to deliver power and communications infrastructure to PNG. This is a step in the right direction as it will facilitate communications between border posts as well as links with Port Moresby.

Secure borders are also a gateway for greater wealth for PNG through trade and commerce. PNG’s border security strategies will need to facilitate the legitimate movement of people and goods while keeping the borders secure from illicit contraband and irregular people movements.

Last year PNG appointed its first immigration and border security minister, a long overdue move which should help achieve a more focused approach to border protection.

Australia will need to maintain its efforts to work collaboratively with PNG on border security. PNG is a key strategic interest for Australia that has been underappreciated since its independence. While we have paid attention to our own border security with PNG in the Torres Strait, we should also provide greater support for PNG in maintaining its borders with Indonesia and Solomon Islands.

This piece is published in partnership with ASPI’s The Strategist website: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/png-border-security-a-key-strategic-interest-for-australia/ 

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