The Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) is preparing to undergo a major expansion programme from approximately 1900 personnel at present to about 10,000.1 Strategically located between Asia and the Pacific, Papua New Guinea (PNG) has substantial natural resources that attract foreign investors. Though PNG faces no external threat, it views its small defence force as inadequate to protect its sovereignty and territory. Chronically short of equipment, the PNGDF expansion plan offers significant potential for cooperation with India in the sphere of training and supply of equipment.
The PNGDF is a tri-service entity with its land, sea and air components being designated the Land Operations Element, the Maritime Operations Element and the Air Operations Element. As its origins lie in the Australian infantry battalions formed between 1940 and 1945 from indigenous inhabitants of the territories of Papua and New Guinea, the PNGDF has maintained very close ties with the Australian military. At present, the PNGDF Land Operations Element lacks armour, transport and weapons larger than mortars, the Maritime Operations Element is equipped with former Australian patrol boats (nearly 30 years old) and landing craft (more than 40 years old) while the Air Operations Element has a single aircraft, though Australia had funded the lease of three helicopters in 2012.2
The PNGDF has very close ties with Australia and is heavily dependent on it for training, logistics support, financing and equipment. However, the expansion plans envisaged by the PNGDF would place a considerable strain on Australia’s ability to provide necessary funding, training and equipment to meet the personnel and equipment targets that the PNGDF desires to achieve. In addition, the PNGDF Maritime Operations Element has ambitions of expanding into a navy capable of protecting the nation’s maritime interests. The larger patrol vessels being sought by PNG are not the types currently built in Australia.3
In 2013, the PNGDF had produced a White Paper outlining its plan to grow, in the short term, to 5000 personnel by 2017, reaching its target strength of 10,000 by 2030.4 It had also outlined significant re-equipment plans, including the acquisition of armoured vehicles, offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), multi-mission patrol boats, landing craft, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.5 Plans for short and long term acquisition as well as capacity building in respect of training and infrastructure were also outlined.6
Given the fact that Australia’s military aid to PNGDF has thus far been second-hand equipment or in the form of aid to purchase or lease newer items, India could consider positioning itself as a potential supplier and partner of the PNGDF. Though India may not be able to supply every item on the PNGDF wish list, but can provide equipment and assistance in niche areas, thus forging a sound partnership with the PNGDF.
To date, India has taken very tentative steps in forging defence ties with PNG, focusing on the much needed coastal patrol and surveillance assets. For example, at the second summit of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC), held in Jaipur in August 2015, India made an offer of a coastal surveillance radar system and coast guard vessels to PNG. The offer was reiterated during the April 2016 visit of the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee to PNG.7 It is clear that India sees considerable potential in enhancing economic and strategic ties with PNG.8 However, if India is committed to building closer defence ties with PNG, it needs to tailor its offer of hardware and training to the needs of the PNGDF.
Abundant reserves of natural resources and its potential to supply India with Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) also makes diplomatic and economic engagement with PNG attractive. For PNG, India offers a market for its products as well as a source of potential investment to enable it to exploit its largely untapped resources
The attitude of PNG towards Australia is not atypical of that of a former colony. It appreciates the institutions left behind by Australia and the assistance provided, but resents the way Papua New Guineans are treated by Australia. It appears that many in PNG view Australia’s attitude as either very patronising or one of benign neglect.9 As PNG attracts investment into its resource and infrastructure sectors, the involvement of Chinese companies is often seen as allowing PNG to break away from its dependence on Australia.10
China’s presence in PNG in a way allows India the opportunity to partner with Australia to present an alternative to potential Chinese dominance in the region. A partnership with Australia could allow India to enhance its presence in the region without incurring an adverse reaction. Cooperation with Australia rather than competition should be part of India’s strategy towards PNG.
India must view its partnership with PNG in strategic rather than commercial terms. To secure supply contracts for defence equipment with PNG, India’s approach must perforce be innovative, proactive and long-term. In addition, generous offers of aid and lines of credit and outright gifts of equipment might be needed to enable an Indian breakthrough into the PNGDF equipment market.
The PNGDF has outlined its plans and has given a clear indication of what it is seeking in the short, medium and the long term. To this end, a study of the PNGDF 2013 White Paper immediately brings into focus the areas where India can assist in enhancing and developing the PNGDF’s capabilities without coming into conflict or competition with the Australian interests:
India’s military engagement with PNG must be conducted in a way where it is seen as cooperating and not rivaling Australia. Rather, India should seek to partner with both PNG and Australia, sharing part of the fiscal, logistics and material burden currently being borne by Australia. In many ways, the path to enhanced PNG-India defence cooperation can be based on the relationship India has forged with the defence forces of Maldives and Seychelles and with the Mauritian police and coast guard. However, the scope for cooperation with a much larger and expanding PNGDF is greater. It is for India to reach out to the PNG and work towards a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.