What interests does Australia maintain in Papua New Guinea?

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As is common in relations between former colonial powers and their former colonies, Australia and Papua New Guinea maintain a complicated relationship.  The 1987 Joint Declaration of Principles Guiding Relations Between Australia and Papua New Guinea begins with the statement that “Australia and Papua New Guinea are immediate neighbors, with close traditional and historic ties between their peoples which both countries are determined to maintain and strengthen.” [www.dfat.gov.au/geo/jdpgr_aust_png.html]  Similarly, the Government of Papua Guinea states in its official website that “Australia and Papua New Guinea have enjoyed a positive and constructive relationship for more than a century.  Although Australia was once a colonial power in Papua New Guinea, independence in 1974 was achieved in a peaceful and amicable way with the full support of the Australian Government.” [www.pngcanberra.org/Australia/index.htm]

These statements of cordiality and closeness are both genuine and strained.  Papua New Guinea is a poor, underdeveloped former colony.  Australia is a wealthy, developed democratic nation with a global perspective.  The relationship between the two countries is more one of paternalism than of equals, with Australia acting as protector, senior partner, and source of financial aid.  Australia’s diplomatic conflict with Indonesia – and it is important to point out that Papua New Guinea borders the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya, which is the western half of the island of New Guinea, and that Indonesian rule is a source of resentment among the population of Irian Jaya – over the status of boatloads of refugees who are seeking asylum in Australia, and whom the Australian Government has transferred to Papua New Guinea, has contributed to increased resentment on the part of Papua New Guinea with regard to Australia. 

Australia’s interest in Papua New Guinea remains, in addition to its paternalistic feelings towards its smaller, weaker former colony, based in no small part on the natural resources of the island.  Papua New Guinea, as with Irian Jaya, is rich in minerals, including gold, silver and copper, as well as timber, which Australia’s large mining industry would be loath to ignore.  The island is also home to oil and natural gas deposits that major multinational corporations exploit for global markets.  In fact, Irian Jaya’s vast mineral resources are one of the main reasons that Indonesia would be exceedingly unwilling to grant independence to its half of the island, despite a low-level guerrilla insurgency that has raged there for many years.

Australia’s interest in Papua New Guinea, then, is rooted in the history of colonialism and in the latter’s possession of valuable natural resources.  The link to Australia, in addition to providing it much needed financial assistance, also provides Papua New Guinea a sense of security with the Indonesian Army right across the border.

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