The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is twenty years old, just like the country. In that time we have built a fully localised national Foreign Service,“ said Gabriel Dusava, Secretary to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. “Only Papua New Guineans are responsible to the government for policy advice on international relations in trade, on investments, on a whole series of challenges that PNG faces as a member of the international community preparing to face up to the year 2000 and beyond.” Gabriel Dusava was reassured by this achievement. For how can a nation be truly independent without being wholly in charge of its relations with other countries, near neighbours and far?
In the beginning we had the policy of universalism”, Gabriel Dusava continued. “PNG had to be a friend to everybody and an enemy to none. This is not the same as neutrality. If you are neutral then you take sides with those who are in the middle. We wanted to be friendly to everyone so that they would know us and we could know them.”
After five years, in 1981, Sir Julius Chan became Foreign Minister. He introduced a White Paper with a new policy. “We moved from an initial foreign policy stance of Universalism to one of Selective Engagement, a policy which we pursue to this day, with regular refinements as the needs, interests and issues of our nation dictate,” explained Sir Julius, who once again holds the position of Minister for Foreign Affairs in addition to the Prime Ministership. He identified PNG’s role in the Vanuatu uprising in 1981 as a crucial point. “It was a moment when Papua New Guinea committed itself to looking past its own borders, in a manner more decisive than ever before, and to taking on the responsibility of behaving as a member of the South Pacific group of nations. It was a pivotal event in developing a view of ourselves as a member of a wider community.”
PNG was now more mature, able to distinguish between governments and to identify those that had made a more positive impression. As Gabriel Dusava said, “We could now choose our friends. We opened up diplomatic missions in strategic places in addition to those already established with traditional friends such as Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan.”
At that time, in the early eighties, PNG started looking at relations with China, Malaysia and Fiji. It joined the South Pacific Forum. It opened up consulates in twenty strategic places like the west coast of the United States, Canada, Germany, Israel, Hong Kong, Vanuatu and, in the last few years, in Seoul, Singapore and Paris. PNG is working world-wide to create awareness of its potential. Opening up a consular office is the first step to facilitating foreign investment and tourism.
In 1995 the most important trading partners were Australia (with billions in investments) and the Asian countries, Japan, Malaysia, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The most important neighbours were Indonesia and the Solomon Islands. The relationship with both could be described as ‘close friends’.
PNG has one land border, that with Indonesia. It is 750 km long. There are a scant 11 border posts, no roads, few people, steep mountains covered in jungle and swamp. Kiaps used to regard it as a punishment posting. Yet this border is one of the most sensitive items in PNG’s foreign policy. In 1975 Indonesia invaded East Timor and a shudder went through the fledgling state of PNG. But it held its nerve. Under the policy of universalism it wanted to remain friendly. In 1979 and 1980 border treaties recognised Indonesia’s claim to Irian Jaya. But it was this border which caused the biggest headache. Guerrilla war surged this way and that across the border leaving in its wake thousands of refugees. By 1984 the refugee situation was critical and UNHCR was called in. Somehow the two countries maintained a dialogue and by 1987 a new agreement was reached. For PNG it signalled a further move from Australia towards the Asian countries.
The other factor which has affected PNG Foreign Affairs, in particular in its relations with it’s close neighbours the Solomon Islands, is the trouble on Bougainville. It erupted in 1989 with sabotage and violence. By 1990 many businesses and banks had stopped trading. Plantations had repatriated migrant workers. Air Niugini ceased all commercial flights. Lloyds of London withdrew insurance cover. It was as bad as having a war zone within your borders. By the time the police and army withdrew, in March 1990, more than seventy people had lost their lives. PNG’s neighbours were sympathetic but distanced. This was an internal problem. When it was solved, and in 1995 it does seem that a solution has at last been reached, they would come in and help. Australia, in particular has pledged a lot of programme aid to the rehabilitation of Bougainville.
If there is a direction to Foreign Policy it is towards recognition of PNG as a Pacific Island country. One of Sir Julius Chan’s first actions as Prime Minister was to tour all the Pacific Island countries. It made a statement. PNG is Melanesian first and foremost. In 1986 the Melanesian Spearhead Group was formed by Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. After a short while in the doldrums it is now back on track and its members have just signed a trade agreement by which tea, tuna and beef will be traded dutyfree. The Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front of New Caledonia has joined the group which engages in cultural exchanges and law enforcement initiatives as well as trade agreements.
Papua New Guinea is also a mainstay of the South Pacific Forum. It is the premier political organisation for leaders throughout the region to meet and formulate policies on a whole range of activities including development programmes, trade, environment, fisheries, forestry and the general health and well-being of the membership. It is of course, firmly opposed to nuclear armaments, the testing of nuclear weapons and the dumping of nuclear waste in the South Pacific. In 1995 PNG are hosting the forum in Madang, bringing 150 leaders and their staff to PNG just before the Independence celebrations.
Sir Julius Chan concludes, “While it would be the height of folly for a small nation to feel that it can call the shots internationally, we do not have to sit by as passive observers. We have our roles to play, ideas to generate. We have a contribution to make to the community of nations. Let us begin on our own doorstep, in our own region.”