Sale of disputed Papua New Guinea islands raises Australian national security concerns

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Defense experts say a potential sale to Chinese interests of the private conflict islands – which lie in the Coral Sea off the east coast of Australia – would put our national security at risk.

Retired Australian businessman Ian Gowrie-Smith is putting his cluster of 21 atolls in Papua New Guinea’s Milne Bay province on the open market.

The Conflict Islands are closer to mainland Australia than Sydney is to Melbourne and have the potential to provide navy and air force strongholds just 940 kilometers from Cairns.

Ian Gowrie-Smith, retired Australian businessman. (A current affair)

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Gowrie-Smith is concerned about the controversial security pact between the Solomon Islands and China and contacted Foreign Secretary Penny Wong’s office in June to inform her of her intention to sell the islands.

“I haven’t heard any tickety boo – nothing. I know it went through all the official levels with the Australian PNG High Commissioner so I know it got to him,” Gowrie-Smith said. A topical matter.

With no response from Minister Wong’s office, the 74-year-old former entrepreneur turned conservationist confirmed he would reluctantly sell to Chinese buyers.

Retired Australian businessman Ian Gowrie-Smith has expressed concern over the controversial security pact between the Solomon Islands and China. (A current affair)
Penny Wong, Minister of Foreign Affairs. (A current affair)

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The island group is close to one of Australia’s main shipping routes, the Jomard Passage, and three undersea internet cables connecting the Australian mainland to the rest of the world.

Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Michael Shoebridge, said China’s acquisition of the island chain could provide the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with an opportunity to project its power at the gates of Australia.

“The PLA, which relies on facilities in our region, just allows them to do more belligerent and aggressive things than we see them doing in the South China Sea, around Taiwan and against Japan,” Shoebridge said. .

Private Conflict Islands. (A current affair)

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ASPI’s Director of Defence, Strategy and National Security has recommended that the Australian government get involved as soon as possible in the sale of the conflict islands.

“Waiting for a sale to happen and being bothered by the possibilities the sale might create is not the right time to be interested,” he said.

Shoebridge pointed out that the Morrison government sanctioned Telstra’s purchase of the South Pacific’s largest telecommunications company Digicel last year to avoid Chinese influence.

Michael Shoebridge, Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). (A current affair)
The Conflict Islands are found in the Coral Sea off the east coast of Australia. (A current affair)

Gowrie-Smith said he was prepared to accept a lower offer of around $36.3 million if the sale is in the interests of Australia’s national security and the success of the turtle conservation program that his charity, CICI, has funded on the islands for the past decade.

“Penny Wong has my email address, she has my mobile number, so let’s see what we can do because I would like to see these islands protected for the next 100 years,” Gowrie-Smith said.

Minister Wong declined repeated interview requests and a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson issued the following statement.

The charity CICI has successfully funded a turtle conservation program on the islands for the past decade. (A current affair)

“We are aware that the owner, Mr Gowrie-Smith, is seeking to sell the private conflict islands in Papua New Guinea,” the statement said.

“Such a sale would be a private commercial transaction and ultimately it is Mr Gowrie-Smith’s decision whether to sell, and to whom he sells, under the relevant PNG law.”

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