Australia 'overreacting' to Chinese development plans on northern border

Chinese-backed plans for fishing plant and city on Papua New Guinea island in Torres Strait designed to ‘ruffle feathers’ in Australia, expert says

Daru marina on Daru Island in the Torres Strait, Papua New Guinea.
Daru marina on Daru Island in the Torres Strait, Papua New Guinea. A leaked letter has described plans for a Chinese-built multibillion-dollar city on the tiny island. Photograph: Aaron Smith/The Guardian
Daru marina on Daru Island in the Torres Strait, Papua New Guinea. A leaked letter has described plans for a Chinese-built multibillion-dollar city on the tiny island. Photograph: Aaron Smith/The Guardian
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Last modified on Sun 14 Feb 2021 18.02 EST

Australia has dramatically overreacted to speculative announcements of possible Chinese-funded development on the Papua New Guinea island of Daru, just north of Australia’s border in the Torres Strait, a former adviser to the PNG government has said.

“I think the Chinese just wanted to ruffle a few feathers on the Australian side,” Martyn Awayang Namorong said of the leaked letter describing plans to build a $39bn city on Daru, and last November’s memorandum of understanding signing to establish a “comprehensive multifunctional fishery industrial park” on the island.

“It’s important to note that PNG is heading to an election next year so we have to ask ourselves are these announcements being made to influence voters? It might not be intended for Australia – and Beijing is just laughing at Australia overreacting. It might be only for the local audience … we have to ask these questions as well as the geopolitical questions.”

Namorong, from the South Fly region near Daru, is a former advisor to the current PNG government, and previously worked for the office of opposition leader Patrick Pruaitch.

China has signed a number of memoranda of understanding for ambitious projects in PNG as part of its One Belt, One Road economic and strategic agenda in Oceania. Many, however, have failed to materialise, such as the 2016 US$5bn agreement to build two industrial parks in West Sepik province.

Namorong said that Daru has multiple unresolved land title disputes that would need to be settled in court before any development on the island could start.

“There are six groups of people that have claims to the land on Daru, so that has to be resolved first, then you must get the consent of those landowners, so on the PNG side there is a long way to go with the development of both projects,” he said. “In PNG that takes a very long time, it could take years.”

Namorong said the announcement of speculative developments on Daru will only heighten tensions in settling the land title issues and could even further delay proceedings.

“It will increase the problems,” he said, concerned it could result in intimidation and violence against landowners pressured to sign over land title rights.

Namorong argued that while PNG politicians were leveraging speculative memorandum of understanding to woo voters, China’s intentions in the region were serious and a fisheries facility on Daru would allow PNG to commercially fish the Torres Strait under the Torres Strait Treaty.

“I think the treaty captured the needs of Papua New Guinea very well, such as access to commercial fishing on the Australian side. PNG has rights to that and the freedom of navigation within the Torres Strait,” he said.

Daru Island, in South Fly, Papua New Guinea, remains one of the most marginalised parts of the country. It is right on the border with Australia.
Daru Island, in South Fly, Papua New Guinea, remains one of the most marginalised parts of the country. Photograph: Ilya Grindneff/AP

In response to reports of Chinese-funded development on Daru, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the high commission visited the island in January. The foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, told the Senate last December: “Commercial-scale fisheries would not be considered a traditional activity under the Torres Strait Treaty and would not be permitted.”

But maritime law expert, Australian National University professor of international law, Donald Rothwell, said Payne’s position was not correct and Chinese-funded PNG commercial fishing boats would be “most definitely” allowed to fish the treaty’s protected zone of the Torres Strait, extending right down to just a couple of kilometres north of Thursday Island.

“The Torres Strait Treaty actually doesn’t make provision for amendment,” Rothwell said, “so the options are rewriting the treaty, which I think is very unlikely and would open up a can of worms for Australia.”

The Torres Strait Island Regional Council mayor, Phillemon Mosby, whose council’s municipality covers the border with PNG, acknowledges that PNG has sovereign rights to Australian territory.

“There needs to be open and transparent dialogue around the investment process,” Mosby said.

“In the spirit of the treaty, we need to look at how these investments are going to impact on us as traditional inhabitants – socially, economically, politically, culturally, as well as the environmental impact.”

“We do not want viable economic investment at the risk of security of our islands, people and livelihood.”

Namorong said China investing in PNG was not new and Australia should not be surprised.

“History has shown us that when the west abandoned Papua New Guinea, the Chinese have stepped in,” he said.

“We’ve seen this happen before and we are not blind to the powerplay that has been happening in our country.”

He said foreign governments should refrain from interfering in PNG’s democratic processes.

“We know some countries have a tendency to do that,” he said. “The west has not learned its lesson by taking a knee-jerk reaction, which is detrimental to the west’s interests, but not to PNG or to China.”