Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea James Marape addresses the...

Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea James Marape addresses the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 22, 2022, at U.N. headquarters. At least 53 men were massacred in a major escalation of tribal violence in Papua New Guinea, Australian media reported Monday, Feb. 19, 2024. Tribal violence in the Enga region has intensified since elections in 2022 that maintained Prime Minister James Marape's administration. Credit: AP/Julia Nikhinson

MELBOURNE, Australia — A tribal clash in Papua New Guinea’s remote highlands in which at least 26 people were killed has put a growing internal security problem under the microscope in the strategically vital South Pacific island nation that has garnered closer military attention from the United States and China.

The rival powers are increasingly keen to strike security pacts with the developing nation whose international significance has grown in tandem with China's increased regional influence.

Here's a look at some key issues surrounding Papua New Guinea's internal security concerns:

PAPUA NEW GUINEA, THE COUNTRY

Papua New Guinea is the most populous South Pacific island nation after Australia and was a colony of that near neighbor until independence in 1975.

The government estimates Papua New Guinea’s population at around 10 million people, although a United Nations study, based on data including satellite photographs of roof tops, estimated in 2022 it could be as high as 17 million. An accurate census has not been held in the nation in decades.

It’s a diverse country rich in resources including gold, nickel and natural gas with more than 800 Indigenous languages. Most of the population scrapes by as subsistence farmers.

WHY IS THERE TRIBAL WARFARE?

Civil unrest in the capital Port Moresby and Lae, the nation’s second most populous city, made headlines last month when at least 15 people were reportedly killed during rioting and looting in street protests over a public service pay dispute.

But tribal warfare has a long history across the country and is becoming more lethal with an influx of illegal modern firearms in the highlands and increasing use of mercenary sharpshooters.

Some villagers accuse security forces of taking bribes from tribal warlords to help defeat rivals who don’t pay for protection.

The latest tribal battle occurred in gold-rich Enga province. Another hotspot for tribal violence is Hela province. Both are among resource-rich western areas of the country where tribal conflict has escalated in recent decades, said Paul Barker, executive director of the Port Moresby-based policy think tank Institute of National Affairs.

Natural resources create jealousies and conflicts around how the wealth should be distributed, who was entitled to mining royalties and which landowners deserved compensation.

Other traditional triggers for tribal conflict include accusations of sorcery following sudden deaths such as car wrecks and payback for casualties from previous tribal wars.

WHY IS THE WORLD CONCERNED ABOUT PAPUA NEW GUINEA'S DOMESTIC SECURITY TURMOIL?

Joe Biden was to become the only sitting U.S. president to ever visit Papua New Guinea in May last year but cancelled at short notice to focus on debt limit talks in Washington, D.C. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken took Biden’s place and signed a new security pact that sparked Papuan student protests over concerns that it undermined the country's sovereignty.

Chinese President Xi Jinping had visited in 2018 when Port Moresby hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit.

The United States and its influential ally in the region, Australia, have been rapidly building bridges with Papua New Guinea and its island neighbors in response to China signing a security pact with the Solomons Islands in 2022 that raised the prospects of a Chinese naval foothold being established in the South Pacific.

China later failed in an ambitious attempt to get 10 Pacific island nations including Papua New Guinea, the Solomons’ nearest neighbor, to sign a sweeping deal covering everything from security to fisheries.

Australian and Papuan prime ministers signed a security pact in December that strengthened Australia’s place as the preferred security partner in the region.

The main dividend for Papua New Guinea was the help Australia offered to address its internal security concerns by increasing the police force from 6,000 to 26,000 members and to support the court and prison systems.

But Papua New Guinea’s Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko revealed last month that his government had begun early talks with China on its offer of policing assistance weeks after the street riots in Port Moresby and Lae.

Papua New Guinea had previously said the United States and Australia were its preferred security partners while China would remain an economic partner.

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