Thirty nine years of independent Papua New Guinea

Thirty nine years this month a proud independent nation, Papua New Guinea is starting at last to box its weight as a real regional force as well. At last month’s Pacific Islands Forum summit in Palau, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill highlighted that his country had committed almost 300 million kina (US$118.146m) to development in fellow island states, and held a series of talks focused on boosting trade and investment with neighbours.

He said that PNG “has an obligation to be taking the lead role” in supporting regional development “when we prosper in our own country.” The 46th Forum summit will be held in Port Moresby in July 2015, coinciding with PNG’s hosting of the Pacific Games – a handy rehearsal for the even bigger and more challenging task of hosting the 2018 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ forum, whose members include the presidents of the USA, China and Russia.

The growing regional clout of PNG, and of O’Neill personally, were also demonstrated in the appointment of the country’s candidate, Dame Meg Taylor, as the Forum’s new Secretary-General – despite being a late contender, and in competition with impressive rivals. And of course, Dame Meg’s own credentials are extraordinary, as a diplomat, a multilateral agency administrator, a lawyer, and an NGO advocate.

PNG has in recent times reinforced and developed its already strong links with its other close neighbours, with Indonesia and with Australia – including through innovative and nimble diplomacy over, for instance, Papua, and over Canberra’s almost desperate desire for access to offshore processing facilities for asylum seekers. Despite the intense criticism that the latter programme has attracted, it has largely succeeded in stemming the boats heading across dangerous waters from Indonesia – and PNG’s involvement in it, however controversial, has delivered greater respect for its government in Canberra.

At home, there have been two big developments this year. First, the production of the first liquefied natural gas headed for Japan, slightly ahead of schedule – though the US$ 19 billion budget for the ExxonMobil led PNG LNG project did have to be boosted as costs rose. During the first full year of gas production, in 2015, PNG’s gross domestic product growth is widely forecast to exceed 20 per cent, making it the fastest growing country in the world.

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