Papua New Guinea’s dynamic economic growth over the past decade has created an appetite for big-picture trade and diplomatic ties, symbolized by its ongoing attempts to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But PNG’s requests, which have persisted since it was granted observer status in 1976, have so far been met with a firm but polite “no.”
While not explicit, the reasons behind Asean’s position are not hard to discern. Even the most cursory glance at PNG’s political history since 1975 reveals a steady catalogue of political crises. For example, it was not until 2007 that a PNG government first navigated the vote-of-no-confidence chicane to complete a full five-year term in office. Crime, too, is cited by some commentators as a further reason for non-accession, implying concerns over civil unrest as opposed to high incidences of burglary and public violence — sullen accolades for which PNG is unfortunately becoming well known internationally.
With a small police force to counter its internal disruptions, and an even smaller military, PNG’s raw strategic benefit to Asean also appears slim. If recent antagonisms in the Scarborough Shoal serve as any blueprint for membership criteria, Asean clearly requires nations that bring strategic muscle, not baggage. Additionally, the expanded Asean member list, despite being good for business, has recently undermined collective decisions. When Asean formed in 1967 it had five member states. Numbers have now doubled, naturally making consensus difficult.
While Asean may not currently be in the business of recruiting new members, this has not stopped PNG from knocking on its door. As far back as the 1980s, former PNG Prime Minister Michael Somare was pressing for Asean membership — a bid he had clearly not abandoned when, in 2009, he approached then Philippines President Gloria Arroyo with a request for accession. PNG leaders of all stripes, in fact, have spent decades on the diplomatic treadmill sounding out support for entry into the exclusive body.
Amid the setbacks, however, it is worth taking stock of what PNG could actually bring to Asean. Here, one can note two broad contributions.
The first is growth. A little-known fact about PNG is that it has, due to its resource endowment, been one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. With strong growth forecast over the medium term, such an attribute would certainly add to, and not diminish, its economic contribution to the important regional body. China, naturally, has taken notice, leaping up PNG’s bilateral trade table to become its second-largest trading partner (but still well behind Australia). Thus, for Asean, there may be some sense in fully welcoming PNG into its orbit, rather than leaving the country exposed to greater Chinese engagement and influence — a relationship that will grow considerably in the coming years.
PNG’s second potential contribution to Asean is a strong commitment to the principle of non-interference. Over the years, PNG’s political leaders have closely guarded the country’s sovereignty. This was illustrated most recently in August 2012, when former deputy prime minister Belden Namah called for the expulsion of the Australian high commissioner for comments he purportedly made supporting the re-election of PNG’s prime minister, Peter O’Neill. As Namah said at the time: “He should be recalled immediately, because he interfered with PNG’s sovereignty, by deliberately trying to influence the election and the process of parliament electing the prime minister.” Whether or not Namah’s comments had any validity, they indicate PNG’s firm respect for sovereignty, not only for its own borders, but also for the borders of its neighbors. Such a characteristic would be quietly welcomed inside the Asean arena.
In highlighting PNG’s potential contributions, however, one must not gloss over some of its recent foreign policy shortcomings. The 2006 “Moti Affair,” which resulted in the PNG government providing diplomatic cover to Julian Moti, the Solomon Islands attorney general wanted for questioning by the Australian government, understandably provoked a moratorium on ministerial contact with Australia — its largest aid donor and key partner.
One must also recognize the relative infancy of PNG’s foreign policy and its slow but measured progression. In hearing accounts from the 1980s, for example, when Foreign Minister Rabbie Namaliu used to exchange table-thumps over border disputes with his Indonesian counterpart, it is clear that relations with neighbors have improved somewhat. Indonesia is now reportedly quite favorable to PNG’s Asean accession.
More broadly, as PNG grows and looks to expand its reach overseas, the country will need to improve how it articulates its foreign policy. Many documents that express PNG’s diplomatic and trade intentions, remain unpublished or inaccessible. Together with improving its security situation and political stability, this situation must change if PNG’s Asean hope is to be realized. To a semi-informed onlooker, PNG’s Asean bid looks very similar to Turkey’s endless audition for European Union membership — slow, frustrating and increasingly uncertain. But, in the realm of international relations, unlikelier things have happened.
East Asia Forum
Sean Jacobs is a former Australian youth volunteer in the Pacific and has worked with all levels of government in Papua New Guinea.