Marape’s State Visit Puts Australia-Papua New Guinea Bonhomie on Display

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Marape’s State Visit Puts Australia-Papua New Guinea Bonhomie on Display

For Australia, it is critical to keep good ties with PNG amid China’s growing influence.

Marape’s State Visit Puts Australia-Papua New Guinea Bonhomie on Display

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape (left) and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese meet in Canberra, Australia, Feb. 8, 2024.

Credit: Australian Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

When Papua New Guinea’s prime minister, James Marape, addressed Australia’s Parliament on February 8, much was made of history. Some shared histories, like pitched World War II battles fought together on Papua New Guinea’s soil, were remembered. Other histories, notably decades of harsh colonial rule by Australia, were not mentioned by the Australian leaders who have been highly attuned to colonial histories in other contexts. Marape briefly alluded to this troubling past but then graciously let it lie. 

However, everyone was on the same page that Marape’s reception was historic.  This was the first time the honor of being a guest of the Australian government, the equivalent of a state visit, was bestowed on a Papua New Guinea prime minister in the 49 years since the nation’s independence from Australia. Indeed, it was a first for any Pacific leader.

While there was much nostalgia, the occasion and the three speeches delivered by Marape, Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, were carefully crafted to send signals to far-flung audiences from Australia to Papua New Guinea and the wider Indo-Pacific region and, most notably, China.

Because of their geographic proximity, their complicated and interlocked histories, and their deeply integrated contemporary ties, Australia and Papua New Guinea have a unique relationship. Marape took the opportunity to playfully toy with Australia’s recent adoption of the term “Pacific family” to describe its Pacific relationships. Marape said, “One can choose one’s friends, but one is stuck with their family. Our two countries are stuck with each other… and joined at the hip forever.” Though made in jest, these words were reassuring to Australian ears. The two nations have been linked since ancient times. These timeless bonds are still recognized today through the exceptional immigration status that exists for Australia’s Torres Strait Islanders and their extended community who live north of the shifting international border first drawn on maps in the 1870s.

These ancient connections have persisted through prodigious geopolitical change with the border demarcating a vast and expanding divide between Australia’s developed country status and Papua New Guinea’s developing country realities. This immense socioeconomic disparity was the pervasive subtext of the event. 

Marape’s visit came less than one month after the eruption of violence in Papua New Guinea’s main cities of Port Moresby and Lae on January 10 revealed deep wounds and dysfunction in Marape’s nation and the enormous gulf of lived experiences between the majority in Australia and Papua New Guinea. There has been much reckoning in the wake of the riots that killed 22 people and caused an estimated 1 billion kina ($300 million) in damages to businesses and property, leaving the nation shaken. 

Marape will face a personal reckoning when Papua New Guinea’s Parliament holds a no-confidence vote, which they are expected to do soon, that will either end Marape’s leadership or if he survives, strengthen it. The current numbers are fluid, though Marape continues to insist they are in his favor. Marape’s Australia visit and his statesman-like performance seem to have burnished his standing and further raised the question already being asked by MPs: Who could replace Marape, who has led his country since 2019, in these testing times? Yet no-confidence motions have been utilized extensively in multiple Pacific parliaments of late to do away with some colossal political figures and associated political problems.  

In Canberra, Marape did not present as a leader on the political ropes.  He delivered a gracious speech and appealed to Australia, a country he acknowledged for giving a great deal to his nation, to not now “give up” on his nation despite their many challenges. There is little chance of that happening given the rapidly escalating tensions in the region and Papua New Guinea’s vital place in the security frameworks of Australia and her allies. 

Though not mentioned by Albanese or Marape – but identified by Dutton in his speech, when he repeatedly referred to malevolent regional “autocrats” – China’s leadership was perhaps the highest priority target audience for the event.  The pressures China is applying in countless national and subnational ways are causing alarm in the Pacific. Most recently, discussion of a China-Papua New Guinea policing arrangement in the aftermath of the riots undermined the sense of achievement felt by the United States and Australia after brokering security agreements with PNG in 2023, though Marape has attempted to quash concerns. Another shadow hanging over proceedings was China’s unchecked expansion in PNG’s neighbor, the Solomon Islands. Though putting on a brave public face, officials from the U.S. and its allies are behind closed doors expressing their deepest concerns about what is unfolding there. This only makes PNG’s existing importance to the security landscape grow exponentially.

Marape’s Australia visit and the prominent displays of brotherhood during public events, were all about emphasizing the “special relationship” the two nations share relative to competitors (read China). Mentioned several times was the hope that a PNG rugby league team would be absorbed into the Sydney-based contest (New Zealand has fielded teams in this competition for many years) and so ignite a whole new level of integration and connection. Sports diplomacy is one of the myriad tactics Australia is deploying in the hope that Pacific nations, particularly PNG, keep looking to Australia for its most important partnerships and security needs.  

As noted, a centerpiece of the Australia and PNG relationship is World War II, which assumes mythic proportions in the historical narrative and was evoked many times by the three leaders on February 8. The war forged deep bonds and transformed relations from a strictly policed and divided colonial world that had operated for decades before the war came to New Guinea’s shores in early 1942. New Guinea endured being the longest open front in the Pacific war. The war transformed the Australia-PNG story into a brothers-in-arms narrative, though many New Guineans supported Japanese forces and Australia conscripted thousands to serve its military forces. 

That catastrophic war of eight decades ago looms over the present in alarming ways.  One day after Marape addressed Australia’s Parliament, Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, gave a keynote address at the seventh Indian Ocean Conference in Perth. She articulated the Australian government’s outlook that “the risk of regional escalation remains great.” Wong named China, saying that “countries of the Indo-Pacific face China’s rapid military build-up, without the transparency and reassurance that the region looks for from great powers.” She cited potential flashpoints and ominously warned that “the prosperity, peace, and resilience we seek are being seriously challenged.” 

The feared future for the Pacific is one that too closely resembles the past Pacific-wide conflict. Marape’s visit was important for the solidification of relations between two nations whose fates are linked, albeit well overdue. It served particular political agendas. But its overarching purpose was to prevent Pacific history from repeating in ruinous ways.