Amid the fanfare of an Australian prime ministerial visit to Papua New Guinea in January, defence was key on the agenda, with both parties looking to again formalise their already substantive ties.

The two nations agreed to conclude negotiations on a Bilateral Security Treaty by May and expected it to be signed in June.

With that date months behind them, they remain at the negotiating table, working to create a framework for current defence activities as well as expanded security cooperation in the future.

It comes as Prime Minister James Marape has faced hurdles trying to ratify a defence agreement signed with the United States, with the document now being referred to PNG’s Supreme Court.

In June, Marape revealed he had concerns the proposed wording of the treaty “encroached” on PNG’s sovereignty.

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Marape said both parties were still going “back and forth”.

“[The treaty] has our national interest built into it … Australia has their own national interest,” he said.

“But in a shared arrangement, their national interest and our national interest must marry so that they don’t overstep each other.

“Important words that need to be inserted must be constitutionally congruent and compliant to the laws on our side as well as laws on their side.”

Australia’s International Development and Pacific Minister Pat Conroy characterised the remaining negotiations as trying to “iron out” the last few issues.

“We’re hoping to conclude negotiations shortly, but I’m not going to put a specific month on it,” he said.

“The important thing is to get it right, to get an agreement that supports the security and sovereignty of both nations, and I’m confident we’ll get there.”

Once finalised, the security treaty would likely see PNG and Australia expand their defence cooperation, at locations like the Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island.

Australia agreed to redevelop the PNG-owned base in 2018 but, due to COVID delays and the lead contractor going into voluntary administration, it will cost Australia more than the $175 million (US$77.2 million) put forward for the project.

The last of four Guardian Class Patrol Boats will be gifted to PNG soon by Australia, with the fleet based at the Lombrum base.

The civil area this month and next has been awash in a sea of ADF and PNGDF uniforms, with a large group of personnel working to build infrastructure.

It’s part of this year’s iteration of Exercise PukPuk, a yearly activity in PNG that brings the two countries together for a series of engineering works at PNGDF facilities.

Primary school classrooms for the families of defence personnel are being completely reconstructed, while roads and drainage nearby are being fixed.

Defence tradespeople are methodically working through the homes of personnel to make safe electrical circuits in the living quarters, as well as doing a range of other odd jobs.

ADF Lieutenant Colonel Nick Trotter said it was this kind of exercise that was crucial to building the relationship between PNG and Australia as the pair looked to sign a new security treaty.

“I don’t think you can have one without the other,” he said.

“It’s good to have an agreement between nations at that national security level, but unless you’ve also got the people-to-people links and you understand each other genuinely, then it doesn’t work as well.”

Lombrum’s Commanding Officer Buni Dorea agrees.

“This is a way for us to have a good partnership,” he said.

“It builds that relationship to make it firm and strong, working alongside each other and sharing ideas.”

Conroy said the base would likely be completed at the end of next year.

“There are opportunities for us to do more training out there and base deployments and operations, if that suits the needs of the Papua New Guinean government,” he said.

“One of the jewels of our relationship is our defence force cooperation.”