The provision of security in Papua New Guinea is a fraught affair. With undisciplined and underfunded state-based structures being placed in authority, how can observers understand the contested security environment of Australia’s closest neighbour?
Papua New Guinea (PNG), Australia’s largest and nearest neighbour, has historically experienced a noted lack of coverage and attention in Australian media and discourse. Beyond occasional references to vaguely understood and highly exoticised Melanesian cultural practises, and the paternalistic nostalgia of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, there is only one note which consistently shines through in the average understanding of Papua New Guinea; that it is a land of extreme and frequently unchecked violence.
Recently, however, this pattern of coverage has shifted, as PNG has found itself on the frontlines of the influence war currently being played out in the Pacific between China and the United States and her allies. The recent United States-PNG Defence Cooperation Pact, contentious as it was in the turbulent world of PNG domestic politics, was met almost immediately with assurances from China as to guarantees of PNG sovereignty, though against what threat is unclear.
In the shadow of these great power moves increased cooperation between Australia and her former colonial subject has advanced fitfully, with a stalled Bilateral Security Treaty being offset by recent and unprecedented exchanges of officers in command positions. To understand this eminently complex and, at times, seemingly irrational web of international influences and competition it is necessary first to pull back the curtain on the equally problematic and contested world of security cooperation and provision within PNG domestically.
Generally conceived, security is a quality provided by the state as an essential component of its responsibilities and characteristics. Under this view, the state assures its external security through the use of a designated professional military, while internal security is provided to a state’s denizens in the form of a police force empowered to both proactively and reactively engage in law enforcement, public order management, and crisis response. In the case of PNG, these dual roles are notionally fulfilled by the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) and the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC). But this idealised western conception of state-based security, and its apparatuses, is rarely experienced in the developing world, and this is no more readily apparent than in PNG.
The security forces of PNG have long been recognised for their relative inability to conduct those roles regarded as definitive by other states. These forces possess long and storied histories of indiscipline, making them as unpredictable as they are incapable.
In the case of the PNGDF, the force has long struggled with finding a purpose for its existence. Created more as a colonial hangover from the former Australian Pacific Islands Regiment than as a response to a genuine threat picture, the force has long languished in relative obscurity. Given its lack of clear-cut role the force has been subjected to inconsistent budgeting, leading to a scarcity of equipment from small arms and vehicles right through to a near complete lack of heavy or advanced weaponry and logistical capability.
The current force of approximately 2,500 people has demonstrated itself incapable of projecting force effectively even within the state’s borders. This was recently demonstrated within the 2022 PNG National General Election, wherein the rolling security detachment, composed primarily of PNGDF personnel and members of the police Mobile Squad, were unable to enforce peace and keep up with the polling schedule. This inability resulted in the entire conduct of elections grinding to a halt and being delayed by periods of weeks in large parts of the country. Furthermore, in the author’s experience of this time, it was frequently the case that sizable units of PNGDF personnel appeared to be acting without orders or coordination with their counterparts, resulting in a breakdown of the security response.
Such a breakdown in coordination might be expected from a force with such a storied history of indiscipline. While the brutal excesses of Bougainville and the stunning display at the heart of the Sandline Affair, wherein PNGDF personnel removed foreign mercenaries from the country against the wishes of the PNG government, are the most internationally well-known examples of this behaviour, this fails to capture the true picture. The newspapers of PNG are frequently captivated by incredible acts of violence and indiscipline by PNGDF personnel; with such violence frequently directed against their police counterparts, ranging from drunken brawls leading to deaths through to running firefights.
This poorly equipped, minimally staffed, and chronically undisciplined force has not unsurprisingly struggled to justify its existence. For most of its history, it has found itself acting as a junior partner to the RPNGC in providing security in hotly contested fighting zones in the Highlands of the country. This internal focus has been reflected in recent, stalled moves to establish a 3rd battalion based in Hela province focused entirely on combatting tribal violence. This internal orientation has, however, proven to be anything but a simple proposition.
While the PNGDF might be readily understood as lacking an obvious role at a foundational level, it would be difficult to accuse the RPNGC of the same problem. The law and order problems of PNG, diverse and divided as the state is, are well noted by observers. In this setting the RPNGC has shown itself to be equally, if not more, ill-suited to their role as the PNGDF by virtue of similar issues of limited capacity, manpower and, at a basic level, legitimacy in the minds of the population.
A simple demonstration of this can be seen through a crude display of statistics. For instance, the United Nations recommends a police-to-population ratio of 1:450, a standard broadly accepted by countries in the Global North. A famously insecure state – where finances for internal security are heavily constrained – such as Sierra Leone might be expected to possess a ratio of approximately 1:612, or in an extreme case such as Liberia, 1:857. In Papua New Guinea this ratio is closer to 1:1,145.
These challenges are exacerbated by the fact that the bulk of the nation’s police force resides within the cities of Port Moresby and Lae, leaving the majority of the country effectively unpoliced. Yet even in Port Moresby and Lae, law and order problems have reached epidemic levels. In this setting the RPNGC has found itself frequently reliant on their counterparts in the PNGDF, with each force supporting the other in the face of their own shortcomings.
These troubles underscore the point that the PNGDF or the RPNGC, in either isolation or cooperation, cannot provide an effective monopoly over the use of force in the country. In ceding their central positions in regulated security, other actors have been enabled to jostle for power in a largely unregulated force market. Tribal warriors, criminal gangs, recently termed “terrorists” in a vain attempt by the government to unite the PNGDF and RPNGC in opposition to them, and a private security industry, which is at a bare minimum threefold larger than the RPNGC, are just some of the figures competing for legitimacy and primacy in PNG.
It is this setting, of incapacity, illegitimacy, confrontation, and collaboration that outside partners and observers must understand in order to better target and tailor policy and rhetoric concerning security cooperation in PNG.
Curtis O’Toole is a PhD candidate with the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs and a graduate of UNSW Canberra, where his research focused on civil-military relations in South East Asia. Curtis’ current research focuses on the provision of security in Papua New Guinea with reference to the relationship between the PNGDF and RPNGC.
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