PNG-China: What’s to gain in any policing deal?

2024 05 09
It seems we’ll be hearing more about this prospective arrangement.

A report emerged in the Sydney Morning Herald at the weekend that PNG officials made a last-minute decision not to sign a proposed policing agreement with China. This followed lobbying from Australia ahead of a visit by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese last month to mark ANZAC Day with a trek on the famous Kokoda trail. But this is unlikely to be the end of speculation about the potential policing agreement with China. As one PNG official was quoted in the newspaper report, “It hasn’t been put to rest; it has been shelved.”

So why would Papua New Guinea consider signing a policing deal with China?

A visit by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Port Moresby last month saw several other memorandums of understanding signed, intended to set broad frameworks for cooperation on issues relating to agricultural trade, information, communication and technology, as well as humanitarian aid and disaster relief. The nature of these MOU’s aligns with PNG’s preferred sectors of development, particularly with the Marape government’s intention to unlock agricultural production and export as the main economic driver.

The policing agreement was discussed as part of these negotiations. But it would no doubt have been controversial.

In his address to the Lowy Institute in December last year, Prime Minister James Marape stated that PNG’s security partner of choice would be Australia, and the country would focus more on growing commerce and trade with China. Should Marape now go on to sign a police arrangement with China, he would have to deal with optics of clearly back-tracking on his own words. This would no doubt affect confidence in future dealings by PNG with bilateral partners.

PNG’s stance on cooperation with foreign police has been firm about the roles that are played.

If the policing pact was intended to be China’s bargain for entering into the economic partnership arrangements, deciding not to go ahead at this time has not scuppered the wider deals. But given Marape’s political position at home – where a vote of no-confidence is still in prospect – his preference might be forced to change to shore up support in his coalition, should China return offering sweeteners.

At a practical level, a policing deal with China would present problems. Having cooperation with two major powers (China and the United States) and one middle power (Australia) sounds great on paper – yet could be a nightmare for coordination. Security partners, whether in defence or law-enforcement, bring with them their own standards, operating procedures, and techniques. An extra partner in the mix adds to the complexities and frustration that needs to be overcome with PNG’s security practitioners before any real cooperative activities can be undertaken.

PNG’s stance on cooperation with foreign police has been firm about the roles that are played. Enforcement of domestic laws is the job of members of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary. Foreign police – such as the Australian Federal Police – are present only in an advisory capacity. But in the case of China, unless the proposed agreement is published beforehand, much will be left to the imagination.

What should be assumed, as per PNG’s practices, is that the protection of sovereignty must be paramount. Any policing deal will be reflective of terms that are not legally binding but are intended to lay the overarching platform for binding implementation agreements to populated, fleshing out this cooperation.

But the advantage for PNG remains unclear. It is no secret that security has been the underlying catalyst for heightened geopolitical interests in the region over recent years – should PNG sign a policing deal with China, it would join Pacific Island countries such as Solomon Islands and Kiribati that have entered into similar security arrangements. That could alienate other partners.


Oliver (Oli) Nobetau is the 2024 FDC Pacific Fellow at the Lowy Institute. Working in the Institute’s Pacific Islands Program, he is on a one-year secondment from the Government of Papua New Guinea (PNG). To find out more, visit the Lowy Interpreter website.
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