Stepping up help for Pacific neighbours benefits us

  • Op-ed
The Australian
19 July 2021

Australia’s nearest neighbour, Papua New Guinea, is 4km from our shores. It was in PNG in World War II, in the battle theatres of Kokoda, Milne Bay and the Coral Sea, that opposition forces came closer to setting foot on Australian soil than in any other campaign.

Australia’s relationships with our region – and particularly with our nearest neighbours – have always been vital to our national security. Our economic prosperity and health security, too, depend heavily on that of our region, and the coronavirus pandemic has threatened these both.

Coronavirus knows no borders, and is indiscriminate in its devastation, claiming more than four million lives and destroying countless livelihoods across the globe. Through strict border closures, much of our region has kept the virus at bay. However, outbreaks in PNG, Fiji and Timor-Leste have shown that the risk of the virus spreading across the Pacific, despite closed borders, is very real.

The pandemic has also hit the tourism-reliant economies of our friends and neighbours hard.

As a prosperous nation, and one comparatively shielded from the impacts of the pandemic, it is our moral and economic duty to ensure our region is not left behind in the fight against Covid-19. We also cannot ignore the threat to this regional prosperity and security, and therefore our own.

We are working closely with partner nations across the Indo-Pacific to bolster their health systems, providing end-to-end support of their vaccination campaigns and vaccine supply. By mid-next year, Australia will have shared 15 million vaccines with the Pacific and Timor-Leste. It is the right thing to do. Through grants and low-interest loans, Australia is providing the ballast our friends will need to get through economic recovery from Covid-19.

To support an open and free Pacific, we must support projects that are sovereign-led, economically sensible and will have real benefits for the people of our neighbouring countries. There is no replacement for face-to-face meetings, particularly in Melanesian culture. I travelled to PNG last week to meet with senior leaders and was enthusiastically welcomed, especially as one of the first ministers from any country to visit PNG since the pandemic began.

In Morobe province, I launched an Australian investment into PNG’s road system – connecting PNG’s two biggest cities, Port Moresby and Lae, for the first time.

At ANGAU Hospital in Lae, local leaders proudly showed me the new children’s ward. PNG recognises that Australia’s $230m contribution to rebuilding this hospital – our largest investment in PNG since independence – will make an enormous difference to the future of countless children.

In Motukea near Port Moresby, I formally committed Australia’s support for the redevelopment of PNG’s ports. PNG’s access to global markets is absolutely dependent on quality port infrastructure. And when PNG’s economy grows through exports and trade, so will ours.

For both countries, our interests are inextricably linked to an open, inclusive and resilient Indo-Pacific region. We are trading nations, and we believe in maintaining an open, rules-based global system that supports peace and prosperity.

But the liberal, rules-based international order is under strain. We are seeing the undermining of international law, heightened economic coercion and increased disinformation. Australia’s economic and infrastructure support to our region, including PNG, supports its resilience.

By giving countries in our region choices about how to pursue their sovereign interests, Australia is helping to build a shared understanding across our region about how states can work together openly.

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