Thursday, October 18, 2018

Papua New Guinea embroiled in US-China rivalry



Recent decisions by Canberra to strengthen the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) have potentially far-reaching implications for the peoples of the country.


It will have a divisive influence: the US-led military planning has run counter to recent political initiatives within PNG for closer diplomatic links with China.


While ostensibly concerned with the external threat posed by China, the military planning also has implications for internal defence and security provision in PNG, a country where deep ethnic divisions are commonplace.
A recent announcement that the Australian government was funding an upgrade of the PNG military facilities at Lombrum Base on Manus Island has remained shrouded in secrecy. Eventually, information was reluctantly released following much lobbying from journalists. A terse media release from the Defence Department subsequently provided information about a $2 million Australian defence budget allocation to establish a communications centre at Lombrum to enhance 'existing security cooperation' between the Australian Defence Forces and their PNG counterparts. (1)
Far from funding an 'upgrade' to Lombrum, however, the Australian government appears to have far grander military obectives which include 'planning to build a new naval base'. (2) Information provided from reliable sources also included Australian military planning for a'deep water port'. (3) The developments would appear to rest upon a recently published military paper calling for a fleet of nuclear-powered fast attack submarines to counter 'faster, quieter boats being developed by rising powers such as China'. (4)
PNG has formed part of Australian military and security planning since the end of the Second World War with the Defence of Australia doctrine: an attack on Australia was assessed as likely to come from the north, the countries of Melanesia were therefore to act as a buffer to repel adversaries. For seventy years, PNG, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu have remained close to Australian military planning, with PNG regarded as the most important of the three: Australian involvement with defence and security considerations with PNG is the largest of any country. (5) The diplomacy, however, is not conducted as amongst social equals. In fact, despite an official diplomatic statement to a 'mutually beneficial defence relationship', a recent Australian diplomatic statement from Port Moresby actually referred to 'our security', with reference to PNG. (6)

The military links between Australia and the Melanesian countries form only part of the equation: the relationship was, and remains, based on colonial and later neo-colonial ties. Successive Australian governments from the pre-independence days of the colonial administration to the present neo-colonial relations have not been generous, sincere or straightforward.
Control from Canberra has been both a means and an end in itself: in 1960, GDP growth rates were 6.2 per cent, they fell to 0.9 per cent with independence in 1975. (7) The Australian colonial administration, far from preparing PNG for self-government, had created a subservient country, dependent upon its former colonial master for further support and expertise: the economic base of the country had been drained.
Subsequent Australian governments and their development programs, likewise, have not enabled PNG to gain sufficient power to stand-alone from Canberra; even by 2016 after more than forty years of so-called independence, PNG could only manage 2.4 per cent GDP growth rates. (8) The relations between Australia and PNG have altered little since independence: economic exploitation has also merged with military and security considerations.
Elsewhere, in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, a similar pattern of exploitation took place. 
The 22nd PNG-Australia Ministerial Forum in 2013, for example, noted in official communiques that 'Minsters agreed to expand the relationship to one of economic and strategic partnership', with a'focus on expanding trade and investment ties', to enhance 'security cooperation'. (9)
The ordinary peoples of PNG have seen little benefit from the neo-colonial relationship thrust upon their country by a business agenda from Canberra. About forty per cent of the population of PNG live in officially recognised poverty, with many others only a little better off. (10) Infant mortality, a good indicator of general female health and living conditions with hospital and health-care access, has remained at 45 per thousand live births, placing PNG among one of the poorest countries. (11)

The rapid rise of China, however, has been particularly strongly noticeable in the South Pacific. It had led to a situation whereby 'there is now a consensus among the leaders of our intelligence agencies that Australia's strategic outlook is more uncertain than at any time since 1942, when Australians feared military invasion by Japan'. (12) A recent report by Retired Rear-Admiral Peter Briggs, for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, likewise, also drew attention to what was regarded as 'a deteriorating strategic environment'. (13) Many of the intelligence assessments conducted by Australia have concentrated upon ethnic Chinese minorities and their role in the South Pacific.
The Melanesian countries of the South Pacific have had Chinese ethnic groups since the nineteenth century; for generations they have been part of a localised business culture. In recent times many have become more strongly linked to China through business and trade and have formed an important part of the dialogue through which Chinese diplomacy has taken place in the region. It is, therefore, not surprising recent high-level diplomatic talks between PNG and China included among the hundred strong delegation from PNG about fifty local Chinese business-people. (14)
The recent high-level diplomacy also rested upon previous Chinese initiatives; in the period 2006-16, China invested $854.4 million in 27 projects across PNG. (15)
While Australia has tended to monitor Chinese involvement in PNG closely, diplomacy between Canberra and Beijing historically has been conducted on relatively favourable terms. With the strong emphasis upon the US-Australia alliance and the present Trump administration, however, diplomacy has now become tense and even hostile as the new Cold War takes shape across the wider region. There has been little ambiguity with Australian far-right political figures slavishly following the US-led political line laid down by the Trump administration. A recent media release from Senator Concetta Fieravanti-Wells, in Canberra, for example, openly accused China of using 'Port Moresby' as a 'conduit for Beijing's outreach', and that 'this should be of serious concern to us'. (16)
The recent military planning for the Lombrum base, therefore, would appear part of a later US-led initiative. The caution with which Canberra has dealt with the matter is perhaps best explained by official military consultation procedures with the Pentagon.

The Lombrum military facilities would appear, however, to form part of US-led military planning through the alliance with Australia to establish 'a combat support brigade responsible for reconnaissance and intelligence and target selection' where, 'the primary responsibility was to protect Australia' in a regional situation 'to secure the nation's interests away from the geographical landmass'. (17)

A small media release in October dealt with the bigger picture surrounding the Lombrum military facilities.  An announcement that 'the Australian government plans to increase cooperation with both the PNGDF and PNG Department of Defence in the decade ahead' has shown Canberra has every intention of drawing PNG closer, despite political initiatives in PNG to establish stronger diplomatic links with China. (18)
Apparently, an Australia-PNG Defence Cooperation program conference in September in Adelaide also included discussion about re-organising the PNGDF into a separate army, navy and air force from 2025. (19) Planning for the PNGDF has also included the expansion of forces from the present 4,000 to over double, and 10,000 troops by 2030. (20)
Two considerations have arisen: US-led military planning has every intention of militarising PNG as part of regional defence and security provision using Australia as a hub. Secondly, in a society as ethnically diverse as PNG the likelihood of military intervention into civil political affairs is a very great danger. The political institutions of state remain weak when confronted with ethnic conflict. PNG has already experienced internal military problems with both Bougainville and the Sandline affair. The latter included a full-scale military revolt which toppled a democratically-elected government in Port Moresby and bitterly divided the country. Australian involvement with the Sandline affair was also never straightforward: corporate interests hired mercenaries and used Australian port facilities to attempt to ship armaments to those wanting to re-open the Bougainville mine. A repeat of these tragedies must be avoided.
Australia requires an independent foreign policy, free from the interference of the US.

1.     Website: Australia further strengthening regional maritime security,  Australian Government, Department of Defence, 22 September 2018; and, Australia starting upgrade, NAVALTODAY.COM
2.     Australia eyes PNG military base,, 21 September 2018.
3.     NAVALTODAY.COM, op.cit.
4.     'Nuclear subs key' to stay ahead of rivals, Australian, 16 October 2018.
5.     Website: Section 28, PNG-Australia Ministerial Forum, 11 December 2013.
6.     Website: Section 26, PNG-Australia Ministerial Forum, ibid., 11 December 2013; and,
        Website: PNG-Australia Defence Cooperation Program,  Australian High Commission, PNG.
7.     GDP Growth, PNG, World Bank.
8.     Ibid.
9.     Section 3, PNG-Australia Ministerial Forum, ibid., 11 December 2013.
10.   On the frontline in PNG, Australian, 16 October 2018.
11.   Ibid.
12.   Intelligence expands to take on China and the new world order, The Weekend Australian, 13-14 October 2018.
13.   Australian, op.cit., 16 October 2018.  
14.   PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill visit Beijing,  ABC News, 20 June 2018.
15.   Ibid.
16.   Bellicose China Is Popping Up Everywhere, Australian, 5 October 2018.
17.   Army overhaul gets under way, Australian, 22 September 2018.
18.   Bigger PNG military part of talks over Manus Island base, Australian, 15 October 2018.
19.   Ibid.
20.   Ibid.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

International students learn first hand the meaning of wage swindling

Ned K.

International students in Australia pay big dollars to study at Australian secondary and tertiary institutions. The fees and subsidiary money that international students bring in to this country are substantial.

According to an OECD report in 2015, Australia has the world’s second highest proportion of international to local students after Luxemburg with 16% of Australia’s tertiary students from overseas. In 1994 international student enrolment was 93,722. In 2017, such enrolments had increased to 792,422. The international students come from many different countries, but the largest number come from China.

International students are in theory required by the federal government to be financially self-sufficient as a condition of being granted a visa. According to research from the University of Sydney Business School, international student visa applications must provide evidence of “financial capacity” such as funds sufficient to cover travel to Australia, course costs, and living costs of approximately $20,000 per year. Alternatively, they can provide evidence that they or their parents earn at least $60,000 Australian per year.

Apart from those from very wealthy families back home, most international students have to find work to supplement expenses to live day to day in Australia. Studies from the University of Sydney and the Fair Work Ombudsman demonstrate that international students account for a large number of low skilled workers in poorly unionised industries such as cafes, restaurants, cleaning, farm work and hospitality. 


So although their primary purpose in coming to Australia is to study, many of them also form part of the working class in Australia during their student years, as do many other local students.


A 2017 University of Sydney Business College research paper “Why International Student Workers In Australia Tolerate Underpayment” found that 73.5% of Chinese international students in Sydney working in restaurants and cafes were being paid less than the award minimum wage. A massive 43% were paid $12 per hour or less.


The researchers found that this massive wage swindling usually went unreported not because the international students were unaware they were being paid less than they should have been according to capitalism’s own industrial law system, but because there was too much to lose if they complained. 


Fear of being sacked and not having enough income could lead to being unable to pay the rent and/or household bills. Or even something worse; being reported by the swindling employer to the Immigration Department for breaching some aspect of their visa requirement.


The most common reason given for not reporting or pursuing underpayment of wages was fear of being reported to Immigration for working more than the 20 hour per week limit during student term times. 


Many international students are either forced by their employers to break the 20 hour limit through threat of being sacked if they refuse, or they take on a second job for cash in hand in order to scrape up enough income to cover their cost of living while studying here.


The Ultimate Wage Swindle – Unpaid Work

Recently I heard first hand from some international students about their working experience in Australia which more than verified the research findings of the University of Sydney mentioned above.


The students from a small Asian country lived in overcrowded student accommodation in the outer suburbs of a capital city. The overcrowding helped them with affordable rent. They heard from their peers that work was available cleaning at a local private school not far from where they lived. They arrived at the school and met a cleaner who told them he had a contract with the cleaning company who in turn had the cleaning contract to clean the school. All they had to do was turn up each day during the week at the same time and he would pay them $18 per hour for four hours cleaning per night. Unknown to the students, the legal award minimum for a casual cleaner working in the evening was about $28-$29 per hour.


After about two months, the students had not been paid a cent. The promise of payment by their “employer” was wearing thin. The plight of these student cleaners came to the attention of some of the teachers and word got back to the school principal that something was amiss. The cleaners were paid about the equivalent of four weeks’ pay at the $18 per hour rate. The cleaning company with the contract with the school denied knowing about the plight of the cleaners, but did admit that one of “their cleaners” was actually a franchisee. Then the school and the cleaning company colluded to get rid of the franchisee and also the swindled international student cleaners and replaced them with directly employed cleaners employed by the cleaning company. It is unlikely that the swindled international students will recover their lost wage entitlements 


They were not members of any union which is not surprising given they had no wages at all for two months and were quite possibly working two jobs taking their weekly hours to over their student visa limit of 20 hours per week. Therefore they just move on and hope that next time they find more work, at least the wage swindling “employer” pays them rather than having no pay at all for extended periods of time.


Change The Rules – Change The System

The ACTU 2018 Congress policy document, “Social and Economic Justice – Temporary Migration – Changing Our System” contains some worthwhile short-term demands on government regarding international students’ rights at work. These include legislation to compel employers to release international students for the purposes of their study and stop employers from forcing them to work more than the permitted 20 hours per week during term times.


However the policy document is silent on the issue of whether international students should be legally able to work more than 20 hours per week. If international students are legally able to work more than 20 hours per week, they are less likely to be used by capitalists in labour supply chains as a pool of even cheaper labour than the legal award minimum labour supply, and then blackmailed with threats of being reported to Immigration “Thought Police” if they speak up about it.  


Removing the 20 hour per week limit should contribute in a small way to the general working class struggle against the decline in real terms of wage levels in Australia because there will be less likelihood of an overseas student labour pool willing to risk working illegal hours at extremely low wage rates way below the supposed legal minimum.


Will lifting on the 20 hour limit result in overseas students being more likely to join a union and being part of the general working class struggle to Change The Rules as a step towards changing the system? 


That remains to be seen and will vary depending on a number of factors, not least being the organising and campaign capacity of unions. 


Grass roots campaigns such as the Clean Start campaign included a large proportion of overseas students as active union members, some of whom became respected leaders within their unions and communities and fought alongside Australian born workers and Australian born students working part-time. 


Eliminating the restriction on the number of ordinary hours of work for particular types of workers (in this case overseas students) should be a unifying factor among workers and make the capitalists divide and conquer tactics within the working class more difficult. 


The ACTU and affiliated unions have the opportunity to build an inclusive, independent working class movement for all workers, including international students by campaigning to scrap the 20 hour per week limit on international student work.

The Backyard: An Australian neo-colonial position serving US imperialism


Australia has maintained a neo-colonial relationship with Papua New Guinea since independence in the mid-1970s; economic interests merged with defence and security considerations. In recent times, however, the foreign policy and diplomatic relationship has become strained.

United States-led military assessments about increased Chinese influence in PNG have raised concerns in Canberra about Australian defence and security planning. The response from Canberra has been both revealing and predictable.

The Australian colonial administration took control of what eventually became PNG after the First World War with the collapse of German imperial control of some of the landmass. Following significant battles across PNG during the Second World War, Australia took more time in the three decades following 1945 to develop the country for its huge mineral deposits. Australian-based mining companies seized the opportunity to exploit PNG for huge profits. Following a relatively peaceful transition to independence, Australian-based business interests remained powerful players behind the scenes in Parliament House, Port Moresby.

Independence, for PNG, was only ever a political strategy drawn up inside the higher levels of the British Commonwealth. In reality, PNG politicians had little say in major economic considerations of their newly independent country, which was destined to be part of the Australian 'backyard'.

The economic model those concerned foisted upon PNG included a dynamic mining sector of the economy, supposed to finance the economic development of the whole country. In reality, the model was never implemented; the mining companies acted like a financial siphon; profits generated on international markets were never returned to PNG. Rather, they were deposited in shareholders' bank accounts in foreign capitals across the world. It would be impossible to calculate the total wealth siphoned out of PNG since independence; Papua New Guineans have seen little benefit from the massive exploitation of their country which has given rise to numerous grievances.

The environmental damage caused by large-scale mining was also a major problem for local people living by traditional subsistence agriculture. Erosion of soil, together with polluted rivers, have left lasting damage upon the country and traditional village life-styles.

In the face of grievances, Australian diplomatic involvement with PNG, similar to much of the Pacific region, has been criticised for two main reasons: Australia's 'influence has diminished' largely due to a failure to 'develop a sufficient cadre of diplomats and others with knowledge of and networks in the islands region, including PNG'. (1) Secondly, concerns raised in PNG and elsewhere in the region about Australian aid money, which, 'goes back to Australia in expatriate wages and fees', has been accompanied in PNG with an 'animosity and anger about being lectured to', by Australians. (2) Many PNG decision-makers regard also Australian aid programs and government officials, 'as paternalistic'. (3)  

In recent times the PNG government of Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, has courted the support of China to assist with economic development planning, which has included large-scale infrastructure projects together with business deals. It has had serious implications with PNG-Australia diplomatic relations for two reasons: Australian aid programs rarely, if ever, had involvement with infrastructure, road and transportation systems. In fact, Australian neo-colonial control of PNG relied upon extremely limited transportation between towns and cities as a means of restricting access for the local population. Secondly, Chinese involvement in PNG has been regarded as symptomatic of a changing balance of forces across the wider region, of which there appears no sign of abatement. In fact, the changing balance of forces would appear to be accelerating.    

Last June O'Neill took a delegation of about a hundred people, including nineteen government officials and fifty PNG-based Chinese business-people, to Beijing for high-level diplomatic talks which were regared as highly productive. (4) PNG government official media releases have openly stated they favour support from China as it is, 'more effective', and, 'unconditional with no strings attached'. (5)

PNG Foreign Minister, Rimbink Pato, likewise, has stated the country, 'saw Chinese aid in a positive light'. (6) He also added that the rise of China and subsequent changing balance of forces across the wider region had enabled China to resume 'its status as a great global nation', and, 'now it is able to assist others, it is doing so – a response to prosperity that must be admired by all'. (7)

China, likewise, has regarded its increased diplomatic links with PNG highly; an official media release from Chinese Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, during the PNG delegation visit in June, stated, relations between the two countries were 'a model'. (8) The high-level diplomacy between PNG and China, nevertheless, has been viewed from Canberra with strong misgivings.

Every move, by China, to use diplomacy to enhance mutually beneficial trade is met with a US-led military assessment with the specific intention of establishing a threat to traditional hegemonic positions, whether in PNG or across the wider region. Their standpoint has remained the belief, 'Chinese commercial investment in the region disguises long-term strategic ambitions. (9) It is not difficult to establish why the US-led assessments regard PNG as so sensitive.

Following the Second World War, Australian defence and security planning rested upon the Defence of Australia doctrine; a military plan which saw possible threats to sovereignty coming from the north. The Melanesian countries of PNG, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu were therefore used a buffer-states, front-line type military positions, to safeguard Australia. Much of Australian aid toward the three countries has had underlying military planning as part of the agenda. 

Increased Chinese influence in PNG, now, however, has raised serious questions for Canberra. An official media release from Canberra, noted, PNG, 'is our nearest neighbour and remains central to our security interests'. (10)

The release was accompanied by a further media statement which noted, 'intelligence and analysis agencies believe that the South Pacific now presents the greatest strategic threat to Australia, as a result of what they believe is Beijing's intention to establish a military base in the region'. (11)

In April unconfirmed reports stated China was intending building a military base in Vanuatu. (12) Following a flurry of diplomatic activity, between Australia, the British Commonwealth, the US and Vanuatu, no further information was forthcoming. Later, in August, however, news from PNG about possible plans to build a multi-use port on Manus Island together with three other ports across the country, in Wewak, Kekori, Vanimo, raised serious fears in Canberra. It was considered 'highly likely' the bill would be 'at least partly footed by China'. (13) The moves follow the redevelopment of port facilities in Lae, the second biggest city in the country, by China Harbour Engineering, which were financed with a loan from the Asian Development Bank. (14)  

The Manus Island location has been regarded by Australia, however as, 'the most strategically significant of the four because of its sweeping command of the Pacific Ocean and the maritime approaches from Asia'. (15) Another media release, likewise, announced, 'the revelation that plans by PNG to build a port on Manus Island could see China gain a foothold there is disturbing', as an opening paragraph. (16)   

There was no reference in any Australian media outlet the ports concerned formed part of economic development planning for trade.

The response from Canberra was shrouded in secrecy, although a report in the Weekend Australian noted there had been, 'negotiation of a joint naval base in PNG', and the Coalition government had, 'commissioned a A$5 million contract for the upgrade by Fletcher Morobe Constructions at PNG's Lombrum naval base on Manus'. (17) It was also noted, 'a joint naval base at Manus would give the Australian navy a prime position to defend and protect vital sea routes that carry trade throughout the region'. (18)  

There is little doubt or ambiguity about the nature of the military planning which has accompanied the moves or their specific intention; it was further noted, 'Australia is working on plans with PNG to develop a joint naval base on Manus Island, edging out Chinese interest in the strategically vital port with a new facility that would be capable of hosting Australian and US warships'. (19) A further media release specified the intention of military planners was to increase, 'the US military presence in the country to boost security in Asia-Pacific waters'. (20)  

No reference was given to forthcoming military exercises, or the planned 'real war' scenarios.

The grander military planning has also not been confined to naval and maritime issues. A media release issued via the ANU's National Security College drew attention to the strategic significance of the Momote airfield on Manus Island, which, 'would be a valuable base for Australian and allied maritime surveillance aircraft'. (21) The release also drew attention to US-led military planning regarding, 'Manus as a forward operating base', from where the planned facilities, 'would help give the US wider operating and support footprint in the Pacific'. (22)

Moves such as this, by US-led military planners have created a wave of militarism sweeping the Asia-Pacific region. It is important for progressive forces in Australia to listen carefully to the peoples of the wider region and establish political alliances. A recent statement from University of PNG academic Patrick Kaiku, for example, has provided an important message; he has warned 'Australia conveys a patronising image of the Pacific when citing the China threat. Labelling the islands as our patch or sphere of influence is an unproductive message'. (23)

We require an independent foreign policy as a matter of the utmost urgency as US-led military tensions across the region escalate into the hands of war-mongers.

1.     Beijing Knows No Bounds,
        The Australian, 19 July 2018.

2.     PNG favours China's 'more flexible' support,
        The Australian, 12 June 2018.

3.     Amber alert issued on PNG aid,
       The Australian, 13 June 2018.

4.     Australian, op.cit., 19 July 2018.

5.     Australian, op.cit., 12 June 2018.

6.     Australian, op.cit., 13 June 2018.

7.     Ibid.

8.     Xi invites Pacific friends to talks,
        The Australian, 11 June 2018.

9.     US warns on China's debt-trap diplomacy,
        The Australian, 4 October 2018.

10.   Editorial, Australia goes back to the future in the South Pacific,
        The Weekend Australian, 22-23 September 2018.

11.   Top threat now lies in the Pacific,
        The Weekend Australian, 22-23 September 2018.

12.   Vanuatu wharf the ideal destination for a friendly naval visit,
        The Weekend Australian, 14-15 April 2018, and,
        US probes military base claim,
        The Australian, 12 April 2018.

13.   PNG port plan stokes China fears,
        The Australian, 28 August 2018.

14.   China casts a spell on PNG,
        The Australian, 20 September 2018.   

15.   Move to head of China with Aussie base in PNG,
        The Australian, 20 September 2018.

16.   Benefits for all in Manus being a base for US and Australian forces,
        The Australian, 29 September 2018.

17.   Weekend Australian, op.cit., 22/23 September 2018.

18.   Ibid.

19.   Australian, op.cit., 20 September 2018.

20.   Australian, op.cit., 4 October 2018.

21.   Australian, op.cit., 29 August 2018.

22.   Ibid, and,
        Bid to head of China with Aussie naval base in PNG,
        The Australian, 20 September 2018.

23.   Australian, op.cit., 20 September 2018.