Opinion: Pacific treaties must be built with care and nurtured once they’re in place

PNG signs Defence Cooperation Agreement with the United States, May 24, 2023 (Photo: PNG Office of the Prime Minister)

Security agreements are an increasingly hot topic in the Pacific as Australia, the U.S, China and New Zealand seek broad arrangements across the region.

Melanesian countries have attracted the most attention; over the past 15 months, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands have each signed agreements with at least one partner. Some have been in development for years, and some of those build on previous agreements. Existing and developing agreements are under scrutiny to ensure they are fit for purpose but are also inevitably—and sometimes justifiably—viewed through the lens of strategic competition. Australia’s commitment to respectful and reciprocal security engagement is contingent on nurturing relationships, listening to the needs of our Pacific partners, and adapting to new challenges.

On 01 June, Prime Minister James Marape announced that Papua New Guinea wasn’t ready to sign the bilateral security treaty it has been working on with Australia due to concerns that the wording encroached on PNG’s sovereignty. The treaty was planned as part of the PNG–Australia Comprehensive Strategic and Economic Partnership signed in August 2020. In January it was announced that negotiations would hopefully conclude in April for a signing in June. This timeline should have been viewed as aspirational at best, and Marape’s postponement hasn’t come out of nowhere.

Only a few weeks earlier, PNG Defence Minister Win Daki signed a security agreement with the U.S, stirring protests by PNG university students and the raising of sovereignty concerns by commentators who saw a leaked early draft. PNG and the U.S have since made the agreement public, demonstrating transparency and signalling that the agreement is intended to provide better support for PNG. It will still need to be debated in PNG’s parliament to be ratified, and that will take time. The U.S having open access to PNG’s military facilities has landed easily in Australia because the U.S is our friend; had PNG’s agreement been reached with China instead of the U.S, it would have sent shockwaves across Canberra. And the agreement’s comprehensiveness reflects the deep strategic preparations going on in Washington.

The public criticism of the U.S–PNG agreement wouldn’t have been lost on Marape. His caution may indicate that his government did listen and will ensure that the Australian treaty’s language is appropriate and isn’t seen to encroach on sovereign rights. The PNG government wants to ensure that this agreement works best for the country and doesn’t affect its sovereignty. Australia wholeheartedly supports or at least should support attention being paid to any international agreement. It’s not something to be rushed, and it’s certainly not a race. To alleviate any concerns when the details are agreed, Australia should work closely with the media alongside the PNG government to explain what the treaty is, how it differs from past arrangements and agreements, and how both countries will benefit.

The PNG government’s hesitancy does not represent a failure in the bilateral relationship. Australia and PNG are friends for the long haul and their security relationship is deep, enduring and substantial for both nations. That shouldn’t be forgotten as they exercise patience to get things right.

The bilateral security treaties and agreements Australia is pursuing across the Pacific are being treated as treaty-level arrangements. They are the highest and most formal of agreements—and they must be ratified by parliament and registered with the United Nations. The UN maintains a treaty collection and its charter states that any member entering into a treaty should register it with the UN to ensure that it carries weight under international law. For Australia, these arrangements may bestow ‘partner of choice’ status, but not all partners will put agreements on the same pedestal as treaties.

On 28 June, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said that his country’s security agreement with Australia would be reviewed to take into account the changing security challenges faced by both countries. Although this agreement is Australia’s longest standing and perhaps most successful bilateral security treaty in the region, in a rapidly changing environment, sometimes a refresh is necessary. The Australia–Solomon Islands agreement was the first of its kind in the Pacific and was signed in 2017 to follow the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands.

Australia’s response during the 2021 Honiara riots was an example of a bilateral security treaty being used to its full potential. It was designed with the ability to incorporate other partners into security responses, so New Zealand and Fiji also assisted Solomon Islands under Australia’s arrangement.

Ironically, the effectiveness of Australia’s support under this treaty may have encouraged the Solomon Islands government to formalise its security agreement with China. That agreement allows Solomon Islands to call on China’s security forces in times of instability and provides Sogavare with an alternative to the West. The details of the Solomon Islands–China agreement have not been made public—a stark indication of China’s intent.

China’s agreement doesn’t have the same protections by the UN as Australia’s treaties. And secret wording in secret agreements leaves much to interpretation. The people of Solomon Islands and other foreign partners have been left with unanswered questions and grave concerns about what the arrangement may mean for future engagement between the two countries. By contrast, if Australia and Solomon Islands update their security agreement, it will undoubtedly be public and transparent.

Australia and Vanuatu are also progressing a security agreement that was signed in December 2022. Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau has indicated that he’ll ask parliament to ratify it this year. Although the agreement is designed to streamline Australian assistance and enhance cooperation across a wide range of security areas, and while it will ultimately deliver clear benefits to Vanuatu, it will likely remain controversial.

Sovereignty concerns arising from the agreement were among the issues raised during attempts to remove Kalsakau from power this year. While the call for Kalsakau to go was withdrawn, it demonstrated the weight placed on geopolitical competition and security in Vanuatu. The agreement has been made public, but little effort has been made in Vanuatu to explain its intent and its benefits. Australia should encourage discussion on security cooperation by the Vanuatu government and in the media.

In October 2022, Australia and Fiji signed a status of forces agreement, or SOFA. It is simpler than a bilateral security agreement and provides a legal framework to cover practical issues for visiting military forces, including customs procedures and criminal and civil jurisdiction. The agreement will make many activities easier, as in Operation Bushfire Assist, when 54 members of Bula Force comprising members of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces and Fiji’s National Fire Authority deployed to Australia. Last week, New Zealand and Fiji announced their own status of forces agreement, along with a reaffirmation of their security partnership. SOFAs serve their own unique and practical purpose but can lead to more comprehensive partnerships. The U.S–PNG security agreement was said to simply elevate their existing SOFA. But these are very different types of arrangements.

Beneath these agreements lie memoranda of understanding, or MoUs—the simplest international display of friendship and cooperation and essentially a handshake deal written down. MoUs are often precursors to greater, formalised cooperation and agreements but tend to fizzle out or under-deliver if the attention or will of either party shifts.

MoUs should spark curiosity more than concern but remain a good indicator of intent. Any bilateral arrangement should exist to steer existing friendships towards more efficient and beneficial activities. Thorough consultation is vital, as China learned when it tried, and failed, to secure a regional security agreement with 10 Pacific island countries in May 2022.

Regardless of the status of its bilateral security agreements and negotiations, Australia has deep defence and security relationships across the Pacific, thanks in no small part to its widely successful and extremely well-funded defence cooperation programs. These include the Pacific Maritime Support Programme, which has delivered dozens of patrol boats to protect exclusive economic zones, counter illegal fishing and support disaster relief operations.

Australian Defence Force officers are embedded across regional defence forces and, as announced on 02 May, PNG Defence Force personnel will be embedded with the ADF. Our defence relationship with Fiji has kept us connected—through co-deployments into the region for stability operations and disaster relief, through Australia’s infrastructure assistance including to Fiji’s Blackrock defence facility, and through a comprehensive maritime capability relationship.

With Australia’s security engagement and relationships so entwined across the region, a transparent bilateral treaty coming from a true and trusted partner is paradoxically both a big leap forward in the relationship and, for some, almost business as usual. Beyond making Australia’s defence and security efforts in the region more comprehensive and bringing together more elements than just defence in a whole-of-government approach, these agreements should be viewed as another step in deep relationships that ingrain the participants in each other’s systems and make them more dedicated to ongoing engagement.

As competition continues to create tension across the Pacific and security threats become more complex and intertwined, Australia’s regional and bilateral relationships will be crucial. Pacific security will remain intrinsically linked to Australia’s own security. But security treaties and agreements, no matter how legitimate and public they are, aren’t anything without the building blocks before them, or the action that follows.

Lucy Albiston and Blake Johnson are analysts at The Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication.

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