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PNG forges international friendships but domestic divisions simmer

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Peru's President Dina Boluarte, Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister James Marape and New Zealand's Trade Minister Damien O'Connor attend a leaders plenary meeting during Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit in San Francisco, United States, 16 November 2023 (Photo: Reuters/Brittany Hosea-Small).

In Brief

In 2023, Papua New Guinea expanded its international relations with countries including Australia, the United States and China, signing both security agreements and trade partnerships amid growing superpower rivalries. Despite this increased global engagement, domestic issues such as ongoing law and order concerns, the reopening of the Porgera gold and copper mine, a foreign exchange shortage dispute and consultations on Bougainville's political status continued to wrack the government.


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2023 was a year of increased international engagement for Papua New Guinea, though the most prominent issues facing the government came from within the country.

In January, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visited Papua New Guinea and held talks with Prime Minister James Marape. Broad agreement was reached on a bilateral security treaty based on ‘shared security interests’.

On 29 February 2023, the Australia–Papua New Guinea Ministerial Forum established a working group to finalise negotiations on this treaty, with the aim of signing in June. But in August, negotiations reached an impasse. In December, a Framework for Closer Security Relations was signed, covering traditional and non-traditional security areas. As the security agreement was finalised, Marape emphasised Papua New Guinea’s multifaceted relationship with Australia, stating that ‘Australia remains our number one bilateral partner’.

Amid growing China–US rivalry, Papua New Guinea also received visits from US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and USAID Administrator Samantha Power. In May, the two countries signed an enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) and an Agreement Concerning Counter Illicit Transnational Maritime Activity Operations.

Marape emphasised that ‘PNG will not be a military launching pad’ and at a subsequent Pacific Islands Leaders’ Summit in Washington, he urged the United States to focus on trade and development with Papua New Guinea ‘instead of focussing only on security and politics’. Significantly, parliamentary opposition leader Joseph Lelang applied for a Supreme Court interpretation of the constitutionality of DCA.

Papua New Guinea’s relations with China strengthened during 2023, marked by growing trade and a goodwill visit from a Chinese naval vessel, designed to ‘strengthen China’s relationship with Papua New Guinea’.

An inaugural PNG–Asia Investment Conference was held in Hong Kong in October. Following this, Marape attended a Belt and Road Initiative Forum in Beijing and met with Premier Li Qiang and President Xi Jinping. Among a number of agreements made in October, Papua New Guinea became a member of the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, approving the establishment of a Bank of China branch in Papua New Guinea and agreeing to use the renminbi as currency for trade.

In February, the fifth high-level political dialogue with representatives of the European Union was conducted in Port Moresby regarding the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. In October, an EU–PNG Business Investment Conference urged increased investment in Papua New Guinea. Port Moresby hosted a World Indigenous Business Forum, at which fourteen countries were represented. Papua New Guinea participated in meetings of the Pacific Islands Forum and the Melanesian Spearhead Group and in November Marape attended an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meeting in the United States.

There was also a further strengthening of Papua New Guinea–Israel relations with Papua New Guinea taking the controversial decision to open an embassy in Jerusalem. Marape led a delegation to Israel for the opening of the embassy and signing of a memorandum of understanding. He reportedly stated, ‘Under my watch PNG will always be voting with Israel’. In December, Papua New Guinea was one of ten countries, including Israel and the United States, to vote against a United Nations resolution on a ceasefire in Gaza.

Despite extensive international engagement, the principal preoccupations of the Marape government in 2023 were with domestic issues.

Law and order issues remained a major source of concern. Inter-group fighting resulted in hundreds of deaths, property destruction and displacement of thousands of villagers. In July, a three-month curfew was imposed in Enga Province and joint security force operations were conducted in Enga, Hela and Southern Highlands provinces.

In October, the chairman of the Permanent Parliamentary Committee on Law and Order said, ‘the country’s law and order situation is at its most critical point and will collapse if nothing is done to address the issue’. The government commissioned a white paper on internal security and announced proposals to strengthen internal security legislation.

Long-running negotiations over the reopening of the Porgera gold and copper mine — closed in 2020 when the government refused to renew the operating company’s lease — finally concluded. There was an announcement that the mine would reopen in December, even though compensation agreements with landowners in the mine area have not been finalised.

Partly resulting from revenue loss from Porgera, Papua New Guinea has experienced a foreign exchange shortage for several years. During 2023, the shortage resulted in an ongoing dispute involving the country’s principal fuel supplier, Puma Energy, the Bank of South Pacific, the Bank of Papua New Guinea and the government. This led to periods of controversial fuel rationing, the temporary grounding of Air New Guinea planes, allegations that government directives were being ignored and the declaration of a national fuel emergency.

Consultations about Bougainville’s political status continued, with the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) producing its ‘Bougainville Vision 2052’. Frustration from Bougainvilleans was reflected in a statement by ABG President Ishmael Toroama, where he claimed that the ‘ratification process’ had been stalled by the national government and urged the government to respect the independence vote from the 2019 referendum.

Riots throughout Port Moresby in mid-January 2024 that resulted in the deaths of at least 22 people exposed a tensile political and social fabric. The riots were sparked by a reported government ‘technical glitch’ which cut public service pay packets, but rumours abounded that the government had implemented a sudden tax increase. With suggestions that the violence was supported by the government’s political adversaries and some in PNG are looking to unseat the prime minister, Marape’s position is looking increasingly unsteady. 2024 in PNG promises to be no less eventful than the year just past.

Ron May is Emeritus Fellow in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, the Australian National University.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2023 in review and the year ahead.

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