Australian soldiers set to train in PNG

Australian troops could start conducting regular training rotations to Papua New Guinea in a move to strengthen the defence relationship.

Full details of the proposal haven’t been disclosed, but the ABC reported plans were well advanced.

These would be similar to the long running Rifle Company Butterworth deployments where a company of Australian soldiers – three platoons of just over 100 soldiers – spend three months training for jungle warfare in the Malaysian jungle.

That started in 1973, initially to provide a force to protect RAAF aircraft operating from the Butterworth air force base during the communist insurgency but has continued ever since with Australian regular and reserve soldiers training alongside Malaysian forces.

Defence Minister Christopher Pyne hasn’t confirmed these new deployments will proceed.

“The Australian government is in frequent contact with the PNG government regarding their development priorities,” the minister said in a statement to the ABC.

“Australia looks forward to continuing to work with the PNG government on its ambitions as part of our ongoing commitment to security and stability in the Pacific.”

Australia’s defence relationship with PNG dates back to the bitter fighting of World War II.

After the war, Australia formed the Pacific Islands Regiment, which was staffed by Australian officers and non-commissioned officers through to independence in 1975 when it became an infantry regiment of the PNG Defence Force.

Australia has continued to provide assistance through the Defence Cooperation Program and there are currently some 30 Australians embedded in advisory positions within the PNG Defence Force.

The 2016 Defence White Paper says Australia places a high priority on defence ties with our closest neighbour PNG, “with which Australia has an increasingly broad-based relationship”.

“The government plans to increase our co-operation with the PNG Defence Force and Department of Defence in the decade ahead,” it said.

The White Paper says Australia is committed to further strengthening the capabilities of Pacific Island countries so they can act in support of shared interests.

“The government will invest in providing more practical assistance through the Defence Cooperation Program especially the Pacific Maritime Security Program and we will work with regional countries to strengthen the regional security architecture,” it says.

With the drawdown of the more than decade-long Afghanistan mission, the government stressed the need to refocus on the immediate region.

One area of assistance is the latest round of the Pacific Patrol Boat program, with Australia providing 19 of the 40-metre vessels to regional countries for border protection, policing and fisheries surveillance.

PNG is to receive four vessels, the same number as it received in the earlier program. The first is scheduled for delivery next month.

This week The Australian newspaper reported the government planned to upgrade the Lombrum Naval Base on PNG’s Manus Island so it could be jointly used by PNG and Australian vessels.

The newspaper attributed that to the need to counter rising Chinese influence, with Chinese interests redeveloping four PNG ports.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison didn’t deny the plan to redevelop Lombrum, initially a US base during World War II and subsequently operated by Australia up to independence.

"The Pacific is a very high-priority area of strategic national security interest for Australia," the PM told Channel Seven.

"But I’m not going to comment on speculation on national security issues, that would not be appropriate.”