Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles said on Wednesday Papua New Guinea had proposed a security treaty between both countries amid increasing tensions in the Pacific islands after China struck a security pact with neighbouring Solomon Islands.
PNG Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko also told he had discussed a security treaty with his Australian counterpart, Penny Wong during her visit to Port Moresby on Tuesday, while Wong told ABC the discussions were in a “very early stage.”
The Solomon Islands has had a tense relationship with the United States and its Pacific allies since striking a security pact with China in April. Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific island countries have said security needs should be met within the region.
“This is an idea that has been put forward by PNG,” Marles told ABC radio on Wednesday.
“We have been making it really clear we want to be as close to PNG as we can be. We want to build on the already close military to military relationship that we have with Papua New Guinea, which we see as one of the most important military to military relationships that we have,” he added.
PNG foreign minister Justin Tkatchenko said PNG continues to maintain its foreign policy position of being friends to all and enemies to none, and that China would remain an economic partner, but that when it comes to security, PNG would always look at Australia, New Zealand and the U.S.
“Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S have always been PNG’s strong and loyal allies, and PNG will continue to work with them to ensure the safety of the country, our neighbours and the region.”
Tkatchenko said he could not give details about what the new treaty would cover as discussions were still in the early stages, but that it would include agreements on the Defence Force and department of justice.
“One we finalise it, it will go through the National Executive Council and we hope to see the outcomes by November, during the Australia-PNG ministerial forum that will be held in Canberra.”
“If all goes well, the two prime ministers will sign the treaty by the end of the year.”
A spokesperson for the New Zealand ministry of foreign affairs said New Zealand had not been approached by the government of PNG with regard to a formal security arrangement, but that the countries were “close partners” and New Zealand was “committed to working with our partners in the region to support our collective security objectives”.
Papua New Guinea is Australia’s closest northern neighbour, separated by only a few kilometres, and a former colony, but has increasing trade and investment ties with China.
China failed to reach a sweeping trade and security pact with 10 Pacific nations including PNG in June.
Australia and the United States are funding the upgrade of a naval base on PNG’s Manus Island, after a failed Chinese offer to redevelop a naval base in 2018.
Chinese navy vessels transit through the narrow Torres Strait separating Australia and PNG, with the activity becoming a point of friction in February when a Chinese ship directed a laser at an Australian military surveillance aircraft in flight over Australia’s northern approaches. read more
The Solomon Islands, which has maritime borders with PNG and Australia, on Tuesday said it was suspending port visits by foreign navies until it puts in place a new approval process. read more
Marles declined to comment directly on whether Australia had been notified of the moratorium on port visits, after the United States government received notice a week after a U.S. coast guard vessel was unable to make a port call in Honiara.
“We want to see Australia be the natural partner of choice for the countries of the Pacific, that is not something that we take for granted,” he said.
He said the government has been doing this with Foreign Minister Penny Wong visiting the Pacific islands “in force”.
“What we’re all really confident on is when we put in the work, we will see a positive response from countries in the Pacific and we see Solomon Islands as part of that and we are confident we can be their natural partner of choice,” he told Sky News Australia.