China’s Foreign Minister is on a charm offensive in the Pacific, but he’ll land in PNG during an awkward time

A convoy of buses and trucks careens through the streets of PNG’s capital Port Moresby, a wannabe politician’s name splashed across them, dozens of people piled on board — some holding off the sides, cheering and chanting. 

This is election time in PNG. It is a period of high passions, high tensions, and high security risk.

And this is the atmosphere the Chinese Foreign Minister will fly into later this week, as part of his unprecedented tour of the Pacific.

While PNG is focused on local politics, around it geopolitics is swirling. 

The ABC has been told by a source that when Wang Yi lands in Port Moresby, he will be announcing a gift of 2,000 body armour sets and helmets for PNG’s security forces, to be used during the election. 

He is expected to meet with incumbent Prime Minister James Marape. But there’s no guarantee Mr Marape will still be Prime Minister in a couple of months’ time.

It is an inopportune time to come calling.

Foreign visits are awkward during PNG elections 

Former prime minister Peter O’Neill is vying to take back the top job, but he’s not looking for any photo opportunities during Mr Wang’s visit. 

A man in a hat stands on a stage speaking to a huge crowd of people
Former prime minister Peter O’Neill, who is running for the top job again, won’t meet with Wang Yi. (Supplied: PNC Party)

“I will not be meeting with any foreign dignitaries during elections, period. It is unnecessary, and any visits should be after the elections,” Mr O’Neill told the ABC.

“Equally, the new Australian government should stop all grants and loans to PNG during this period.”

He alleges funds are being stolen and used for election campaigning, a claim the Marape government denies. 

“Foreign governments should respect our laws and allow our people to vote freely,” Mr O’Neill said.

The PNG public, always wary of political corruption, may also eye the Chinese visit with suspicion — whether that’s warranted or not. 

Mr Marape said as a high-ranking member of the Chinese government, Mr Wang would receive “all the respect that he deserves, and all the protocols”.

James Marape in a bright green lei around his neck stands on a stage looking out at a huge crowd of people dressed in green
PNG Prime Minister James Marape says Mr Wang should be treated with “all the respect that he deserves”. (Supplied: PM’s Media)

It’s unclear if any deals or agreements will be signed during Mr Wang’s visit to PNG, as has happened elsewhere in the Pacific.

But if they were, the impending election would mire them in controversy.

PNG doesn’t have a caretaker provision, so the incumbent government remains in full power until the return of writs.

But major decisions generally aren’t made.

When Mr Marape and a group of ministers flew to China in February, Mr O’Neill sounded a warning that any contracts signed “would be reviewed if there’s a change of government”.

Mr Marape hit back with a swipe at Mr O’Neill’s time in power, saying: “I’m not going to borrow money, I’m going to source business partnerships.”

Mr Marape did sign off on a concessional loan for an electricity project during the visit, along with several other agreements largely on trade and agriculture.

PNG election also looms over possible Australian visit

As China looks to donate equipment for PNG’s election security forces, dozens of extra Australian defence personnel have moved into a hotel in the city.

The additional Australian Defence Force members join around 40 permanently stationed in PNG and will be in the country until August to help with the election — assistance regularly provided when PNG goes to the polls. 

About 100 defence personnel will be involved over the election period, and Australia is contributing approximately $20 million for materials including printing of ballots, and logistical and technical support. 

A big, blazing truck fire
Tensions can run high during PNG’s election. This week a minister’s convoy was set alight during a campaign trip to the Eastern Highlands. (Supplied: EHP Police )

It speaks to Australia’s role as PNG’s primary security partner, a position it is keen to maintain.

In recent years, there have been moves to “step up” the engagement with plans to help redevelop a naval base and help rebuild PNGDF’s air capacity

The PNG election is also looming over the new Australian government and its plans to visit.

New Foreign Minister Penny Wong has already been to Fiji and it’s no secret Prime Minister Anthony Albanese wants to come to PNG.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong shakes hands on the tarmac after landing in Fiji. 
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong went to Fiji last week. (Supplied: Fijian government)

His predecessor, Scott Morrison, shared a close friendship with his PNG counterpart, something Mr Albanese would surely like to emulate.

Mr Albanese and Mr Marape have had a virtual meeting over Zoom this week

When congratulating Mr Albanese on his win, Mr Marape was pointed about the timing of any visit.

“After our own elections here, we’d like to go down and visit him or we invite him to come and visit us, as a nation that is closest to Australia, by affinity [and] physical distance,” Mr Marape said. 

The final outcome of the PNG election and who will be forming government likely won’t be known until August.

Australia has faced criticism in the past for visiting — or planning to visit — during times of political upheaval in PNG.

In 2017, then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull came under fire for visiting in the months before Papua New Guineans were to head to the polls, and in 2020 Scott Morrison cancelled a visit when Mr Marape was facing a challenge to his leadership.

A visit by an Australian leader during the campaign period would undoubtedly throw up accusations of interference and potentially do more harm than good to the relationship, depending on who wins at the polls. 

Geopolitics bubbles in the background

It’s not just Australia and China showing an increased interest in PNG.

Japan, the UK and France have also been upping their involvement in recent years

US personnel in the country has almost doubled. They’re getting ready to move into a new and bigger embassy in the capital. 

But at a time when major powers want to flaunt and increase their influence in the Pacific, the PNG election is slowing everything down. 

Australia’s diplomats have scaled back their public appearances, to avoid being politicised. But Australia has been upping its presence online and on social media. 

Work behind the scenes on an Australian support plan for PNG’s Western Province, which includes the island of Daru, is also ongoing.

The island has been in the news amid multiple Chinese development offers.

Australia has always had a focus on Western Province, given its proximity, but there has been renewed attention, especially in assistance for the local fishing industry.

Just ahead of the election period, China’s ambassador made a visit to the PNG Foreign Minister’s electorate. 

A map of a proposed development site on Papua New Guinea's coast line
A proposed development site with funding support from China could include a naval and military base. 

The development idea has been proposed by PNG since 2018 and is unlikely to progress anytime soon.

But given the current regional tensions, the area’s proximity to Australia and the fact the design drawing from 2018 includes a proposed “naval base” and “military base”, the development idea will be staying on people’s radar. 

As has been evident with some of the plans put forward in Daru, even unlikely proposals attract attention in the current climate.

In that background, the geopolitics remains.

But for the next two to three months, PNG’s politicians will be firmly looking inward.

Given the 50 per cent turnover of MPs the country sees at election time, that’s understandable.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *