Papua New Guinea opposition seeks Supreme Court review of US defense pact

Harlyne Joku and Stephen Wright
Port Moresby and Brisbane
Papua New Guinea opposition seeks Supreme Court review of US defense pact Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape (right) speaks as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken looks on at a press conference in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea on May 22, 2023.
Stephen Wright/BenarNews

Papua New Guinea’s opposition leader has sought a Supreme Court review of the legality of a recently signed defense cooperation agreement with the United States, highlighting continuing unhappiness about the pact in the Pacific island country.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Papua New Guinea’s Defense Minister Win Bakri Daki signed the agreement in May, which once ratified would give the U.S. military unrestricted access to six air and sea ports in the island nation. The U.S. would also have criminal jurisdiction over American military personnel in Papua New Guinea.

The agreement “has sparked unprecedented protests and opposition all over the country,” opposition leader Joseph Lelang told BenarNews on Monday. “The issue of sovereignty and constitutionality of that agreement is now being tested.” 

The agreement has been criticized by some analysts and groups such as the PNG Trade Union Congress as overly accommodative to Washington and entangling Papua New Guinea in the intensifying rivalry between China and the United States. Its signing sparked student protests at campuses in Papua New Guinea.

The U.S. has sought to bolster its already significant military presence in the Pacific and East Asia in response to China’s claims to the South China Sea that impinge on several Southeast Asian countries’ waters, its belligerence towards Taiwan – which Beijing considers a rebel province – and other activity.  

Aside from Papua New Guinea, the U.S. has strengthened its defense ties with the Philippines, which is embroiled in territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea. 

The U.S. and the United Kingdom are also working to equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines by next decade, under the AUKUS pact – another source of concern for some Pacific island nations that fear being dragged into superpower competition.

China’s military spending has grown rapidly for the past two decades but remains much smaller than that of the U.S. and its allies. 

Lelang said the defense agreement case was submitted to Papua New Guinea’s top court on Thursday and a date for hearings to begin has yet to be decided.

A statement from Lelang said the government has the right to enter into agreements with other countries, but must do so without breaching the constitution or any other laws.

“As leader of the opposition it is my duty to ensure that all lawful checks and balances are strengthened or are available and that at all times, PNG’s sovereignty is not unnecessarily compromised,” he said.  

Lelang said the opposition’s lawyers are also preparing a challenge to the shiprider agreement signed with the U.S. in May. 

The agreement provides the basis for personnel from the Pacific island country to work on U.S. coast guard and naval vessels, and vice versa, in targeting economic and security challenges such as illegal fishing.

The Pacific island country’s courts are independent and are empowered to shape society rather than be judicial bystanders, according to constitutional law expert Bal Kama. The Supreme Court, which is the final judicial word on interpretations of the constitution, in 2016 ordered the closure of an Australian detention center on Papua New Guinea soil that was used to hold refugees and asylum seekers.

Papua New Guinea is among the poorest nations in the Pacific and its central government struggles to exert control over vast tracts of remote mountainous territory that frequently erupt in fatal tribal violence.  

Prime Minister James Marape has previously said the defense agreement would help Papua New Guinea develop a robust economy, without giving details of how that would be achieved.

Mihai Sora, a Pacific analyst at the Lowy Institute, a Canberra-based think tank, said Marape probably has enough influence to ensure political support for the defense agreement.

However, the window of stability for his administration is closing, Sora said. A grace period that prevents no confidence motions in the first 18 months of a government will end in February.

“I think fundamentally the benefits of the defense cooperation agreement for Papua New Guinea are yet to be realized or even satisfactorily explained,” Sora said. 

“This is the U.S.’s problem more than Marape’s problem. It should be their main priority in PNG right now,” he said. 

The U.S.-PNG agreement and the AUKUS security pact are part of the new regional security architecture of the so-called Indo-Pacific, a U.S. strategic concept that combines the Indian and Pacific oceans and which analysts say aims to contain China.

Samoa’s Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa said in March that it was disconcerting to be lumped into a new super region without any consultation.


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