Leveraging PNG’s strengths and location to become a small maritime power
PNG as a maritime power

PNG can be a creative maritime power to the benefit of itself and regional security.

Written by

Anthony Bergin

As Papua New Guinea is our closest neighbour, we’ve got direct security interests in the country’s maritime and border security. Porous borders and poor law and order in PNG waters poses risks to Australia, whether it be from illegal immigrants, biosecurity hazards or drugs or dangerous goods moving through the country into Australia.

PNG faces no external military threat. But it does need to exert sovereignty over its extensive maritime areas. In the latest issue of the Australian Journal of Maritime & Ocean Affairs I examine PNG’s maritime and border security arrangements and find that there’s significant gaps. 

PNG is an archipelagic nation with a large EEZ. It’s got complicated borders with Australia, Indonesia, and Solomon Islands. The borders with Indonesia and Solomon Islands aren’t well patrolled on the PNG side. They’re largely open to the uncontrolled movement of people and goods. The part of the sea border with Australia, in the Torres Strait is the best controlled of its borders. But some illegal movement of people and goods still occurs. 

Some parts of PNG’s offshore estate, including far-flung islands, are very remote. It’s a major challenge for PNG to undertake surveillance and mount regular patrols in a very wide area to maintain sovereignty, protect resources and deter illegal activity in a 2.7 million km2EEZ. 

PNG agencies working on border and maritime security lack coordination. Australia has provided four Guardian-class patrol boats and some aerial assets, (in December Australia gifted two PAC-750XL aircraft to the PNGDF for transport, search and rescue, and surveillance). But PNG’s material assets struggle to meet the challenges of sovereignty protection and maritime law enforcement. 

One useful development occurred last May when PNG signed a Ship Rider Agreement with the US Coastguard.  The USCG has already exercised the bilateral maritime law enforcement agreement twice and is planning another PNG patrol as part of its broader commitments in the region.

The PNGDF and Royal PNG Constabulary share the main responsibilities for maritime and border security along with supporting customs, immigration, and biosecurity. The maritime element of the PNGDF has been restricted in current operations due to resource constraints. Similarly, the RPNGC has struggled to provide monitoring of border areas. It’s closed some key border posts. The Air Transport Wing of the PNGDF currently makes very little contribution to the important requirement for air surveillance of border and maritime areas.

Despite being a large archipelagic country with extensive maritime interests, PNG is “sea blind”; it lacks maritime awareness, with internal issues of law and order are attracting the most political interest. 

In my article, I propose several measures for PNG to strengthen various dimensions of civil maritime and border security. First, some appreciation of the archipelagic nature of the country could be a useful tool for nation building, helping to bring the disparate people of the maritime and land provinces together.

Second, consideration should be given to splitting the maritime element from the PNGDF to form a coastguard with its own command arrangements. Third, PNG should develop a maritime security strategy that has a framework for measuring the effectiveness of actions taken to deliver PNG’s maritime and border security objectives. It should set out PNG’s approach to border and maritime security, how the country will deliver those objectives, assess maritime and border security risks, and set out future directions. The implementation and updating of the strategy will require monitoring and regular updates to the assessment of maritime and border risks and threats.      

Fourth, cooperation with neighbours remains crucial. The western Torres Strait is an area where the interests of the three littoral countries, Australia, Indonesia, and PNG, intersect, including in the very remote vicinity of the “dog leg” of PNG’s EEZ that projects into this area and is outside the provisions of the Torres Strait Treaty. A high level of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is reported to occur in this area compounded by no agreed maritime border between PNG and Indonesia in the offshore sector of the “dog leg”.

There are bilateral issues between PNG and Indonesia in the southern border region. There is a lack of border presence in key designated PNG Torres Strait “treaty villages” in Western Province. A trilateral dialogue for maritime and border security should be established in the western Torres Strait area. 

Fifth, the National Surveillance Coordination Centre should be appropriately resourced, with improved information sharing with neighbouring countries, especially Australia. The NSCC recently adopted SeaVision, a web-based tool for maritime domain awareness

Sixth, there’s scope to establish a volunteer coast-watcher system in PNG, especially in remote coastal areas and islands. This could be associated with the community auxiliary police, where they exist. The system would involve a village leader or other respected person being designated to provide reports of any unusual maritime activity in his/her reporting area. They would require some basic equipment to be issued, and the ability to communicate with a local reporting station, such as by phone.

Finally, there’s no single PNG home of learning and development for maritime security and border protection across all agencies. Training line agencies in exercising their respective duties and functions needs to be done consistently. Occasionally, there are training sessions, and workshops conducted by both internal agencies and overseas partners. But a solid training program needs to be promulgated, conducted, and administered by appropriate staff within line agencies. 

PNG has the potential to leverage its strengths and location to serve as a small maritime power. Its waters deliver up to half of the region’s tropical tuna. But to date the country hasn’t been able to exercise this owing to the infrastructure weaknesses, managerial arrangements, and sea blindness when it comes to advancing its ocean interests in the face of a growing number of maritime threats and risks.

Australia should be looking for opportunities to further assist PNG in strengthening its border and maritime security efforts. On 7 December 2023, the Prime Ministers of the two states signed an historic security agreement in Canberra titled “Agreement between the Government of Australia and the Government of Papua New Guinea on a framework for Closer Security Relations.” The security framework specifically notes maritime and border security. In this context, an earlier proposal I’ve suggested might be considered by Australia and PNG. 

Given China’s wish to play a direct security role in our region, now’s the time to initiate an Australia and PNG joint project to enhance the port facilities and airfield at Milne Bay. It offers better potential defensive coverage of the vital Solomon and Coral Seas than Manus Island, more than 500 nautical miles to the north (where the Lombrum naval base is being upgraded to accommodate PNG’s Guardian-class patrol boats) or expanding the Torres strait capacity to include Daru, in the shallow reef-strewn PNG side of the Torres Strait, where China has expressed  interest in developing maritime infrastructure

 Finally, a significant development occurred this week. Indonesia and Papua New Guinea will boost joint border patrols after the two countries announced ratification of a defence cooperation agreement, that had been signed a decade ago. Joint border patrols “will be part of the ever-growing security mechanism,” PNG’s foreign minister Tkatchenko said.

A future issue on joint patrols is whether this agreement could extend beyond the land border and be a prelude to joint maritime patrols to deal with IUU fishing and other maritime illicit activities. It’s not clear if the new agreement extends beyond territorial waters, (the 1973 agreement only confirms a maritime boundary between PNG and Indonesia out to 20 nautical miles).  PNG’s southern maritime boundary with Indonesia poses ongoing problems from the Papuan Gulf in the east to Daru and west to the Indonesian border. 

Daru is a designated international port located on the eastern side of the Torres Strait and is extremely remote from the Indonesian border. Further there are no real assets to monitor the area on the PNG side, nor capacity to manage boats coming from Indonesia. There are major concerns with the illegal incursions and trade in beche-de-mer and other coastal resources, and Indonesian interests sponsoring IUU activities from PNG villages into Australian waters. 

Due to the waters being poorly charted and shallow, the border north of Australia’s Torres strait is poorly patrolled. Both Indonesia and PNG are looking at cross border development, (and perhaps a free trade zone), in this coastal area (and between Vanimo and Jayapura in the north), so the new security agreement offers opportunities for PNG to consider the maritime security side of any boost to border trade.

Anthony Bergin is a senior fellow at Strategic Analysis Australia and the author of “Papua New Guinea’s maritime security challenges: building capabilities as an archipelagic state” Australian Journal of Maritime & Ocean Affairs (2024).