A former Manus Island MP says Australia and Papua New Guinea’s deal to jointly redevelop a naval base on the island has been “bulldozed” through without discussion with locals.
- Ronnie Knight says there was no discussion with locals about the deal
- He says there is not enough detail about who is running the base
- The deal comes before the PNG-hosted APEC summit, which has been largely bankrolled by China
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the agreement on Thursday, struck between the two nations amid rising anxiety about China’s influence in the Pacific region.
Mr Morrison said the deal would enhance the connection and cooperation between Australia and the pacific nation, a move stemming from the Boe Declaration at the Pacific Island leaders Forum in September.
But former Manus MP Ronnie Knight said the new agreement lacked detail.
“There was no discussion with any of the locals, it has just been bulldozed through again and that is what makes people cross,” he told the ABC’s Pacific Beat program.
Mr Knight is worried the deal could replicate the same governance issues that arose during the development and operation of the Manus Island detention centre.
“There is a lot of questions to be answered. First of all, is it going to be a PNG base run on behalf of the Australians, or with the Australians? If that is the case, that is fine.
“If it is going to be an Australian base run by itself, we are now having a foreign base on our soil and we need to know the bits and pieces that go with it.
“Are we going to allow them to be on our sovereign soil and just do their own thing? Or do we have to answer questions like are they going to be subject to PNG laws?”
The ABC has contacted the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), but had not received comment by the time of publication.
Manus Tourism Chairman Ben Pokarop told the ABC he was unaware of the joint naval base and was “shocked to have another activity that is so big” on the back of the detention centre, stating it could have negative effects for the tourism industry.
“It would be news to the people of Manus,” he told the ABC.
“Everything that is happening, is happening big and forgetting the small people.”
Michael Shoebridge, the director of defence and strategy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the base could see a fairly frequent Australian presence, but could also serve as a regional training facility for the Pacific’s maritime forces.
“I think we should really be thinking about this as a forward operating base. It’s about 1,500 kilometres further north than other Australian bases, whether that’s Darwin or Cairns,” he said.
“Presence is important. Building a larger naval facility than PNG needs for itself, and then not using it, doesn’t seem to me to be good value for money.”
PNG ‘in the driver’s seat’ with China
Mr Shoebridge said PNG’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill had done a “fantastic job” striking the agreement ahead of this month’s APEC meeting, to be held in the nation’s capital, Port Moresby.
China’s powerful President Xi Jinping will be attending the summit, and Mr Shoebridge said having the navy base deal signed may have an impact on discussions between Mr Xi and Mr O’Neill.
“He has put PNG in the driver’s seat here with Xi at the APEC and follow-on meetings, so I think that’s a big part of it,” he said.
“He’s doing it because he sees Australia as a natural strategic partner, but also because right now he’s got a lot of leverage to make that clear, and get more than symbolism out of the Australian Government.”
Mr Shoebridge said the base deal could act as “a bit of a vaccination” for Mr O’Neill ahead of the APEC summit, where he may sign onto additional loans from China.
“He can now agree to some soft loans and other infrastructure from Beijing, but have this as a balancer for him.”
Mr Morrison announced the deal in his first major foreign policy speech since taking the top job, and said strong relationships in the region were one of his Government’s highest priorities.
“This is a relationship that I want to see rise to a new level of respect, partnership, familiarity and appreciation,” he said.
“I want us to do better, I want to set right how we engage with our Pacific family. I will not be taking our Pacific family for granted.”
Posted 1 November 2018, updated 2 November 2018