My brother Jeff was a surveyor in Papua New Guinea (PNG) between 1964 and 1975, the year the new nation gained independence.
There had been plenty of work for Jeff, as Australia poured huge sums of money into the new country's infrastructure - building roads, bridges and power lines. Manna from heaven for a surveyor. Post-independence the Australian government's funding dried up, and my brother returned home.
In 2017, we joined Jeff and his family on a "down memory lane" cruise to PNG. Tourists are rare because the country is so dangerous. Crime, corruption and poverty are endemic. Forty per cent of the population exists on a dollar a day.
In retrospect, Australia should have spent a few more years upskilling the new nation before granting independence.
Australia is still the largest provider of assistance to PNG at the government level, funding 70 per cent of the country's aid. However, its leaders are increasingly listening to China's siren song, which is wooing the struggling nation with extensive aid and development investments.
They seem to have singled out PNG for special attention, the first country in the Pacific to sign up for the "belts and roads" program, where China provides loans to developing countries to build ports and other key infrastructure.
Chinese President Xi Jinping visited PNG before the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in 2018. Before his arrival, China had built the conference centre and a six-lane highway leading to the parliament. During the visit, President Xi pledged an additional $330 million in concessional loans.
China continues to look for opportunities in PNG, driven by its natural resources and strategic location, close to Australia and Indonesia.
There is a joke going around Port Moresby, about how China agreed to fund the city's main boulevard construction. The PNG Prime Minister asks the Chinese President to fund this. "No problem", was the response, "but just one detail, can it be wide enough for our tanks to roll down"?
China continues to look for opportunities in PNG, driven by its natural resources and strategic location.
For Australia, there are several proposed Chinese projects of concern in the Western Province, one of the poorest regions in southwest PNG. Its capital on the tiny island of Daru has become the latest flashpoint in tensions between Australia and China. It is just an afternoon's journey across Torres Strait to Australia.
Perhaps the most audacious proposal is by a Hong Kong-based company that wants to build a $30 billion city on Daru, including a port, business and industrial zone, residential areas and resort. To put this in context, PNG's entire economy was valued at $25 billion in 2019. A former adviser to PNG leaders, Jeff Wall, says: "the proposal was an ambit claim, but it could pave the way for other Chinese investments on Daru".
More realistic is the Chinese Fujian Zhonghong company's plan to build a $200 million multifunctional fishery industrial park on the island. An MOU with the governor of Western Province has been signed. Its proposed location on the Torres Strait in the south is curious. PNG has a vast maritime territory, with its tuna making up 10 per cent of the world's stock. But these fish are not in this region.
Australian federal MP Warren Entsch, whose electorate covers the Torres Strait, is alarmed at the development and asks, "why would you build such a huge fishing operation in a place where there aren't many fish"? The prospect of China building a massive port on Australia's doorstep has become a serious security concern for our country. What is China's real agenda?
Jeff Wall says: "a new port on Daru really pokes Australia in the eye. They can build a port right on Australia's doorstep and there is nothing we can do about it".
There is a substantial Border Force presence in the Torres Strait, patrolling Australia's Exclusive Economic Zonewith "Operation Resolute". Its focus is on illegal fishing and drug importation. If the Chinese build the Daru port facility, our authorities may have to decide which boats are involved in fishing and which might be fronts for China's operations.
If this project goes ahead, the type of conflict we are witnessing in the South China Sea, between China and its neighbouring countries, may spread to Australia's northern shore.
Newcastle East's Dr John Tierney AM is a former Hunter-based federal senator
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