As the United States reengages in the Pacific Islands, Papua New Guinea is emerging as an increasingly important U.S. partner. It is the region’s largest country, with a landmass about the size of California and a population estimated to be somewhere between 10 and 17 million. In April 2022, Papua New Guinea was designated as one of the focus countries under the U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability (SPCPS). In May 2023, the United States and Papua New Guinea signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement.

Papua New Guinean leaders frequently characterize their foreign policy as one of “friends to all, enemies to none.” Australia is the country’s largest donor and traditional partner. Non-traditional partners like China, India and Indonesia — Papua New Guinea’s western neighbor — are increasingly engaging as well. Like other Pacific Island countries, Papua New Guinea would prefer not to take sides in geopolitical competition between China and the United States and its partners, as Papua New Guineans worry doing so could adversely affect their country.

Challenges in Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea’s main security and stability challenges are internal — including climate change, biodiversity loss, gender-based violence, internal stability issues, and the future political status of Bougainville.

Climate change not only threatens Papua New Guinea’s low-lying atolls with sea-level rise and increasing storms, but also affects the country’s interior, where changing temperatures can damage crops and unpredictable, torrential rains can lead to dangerous landslides. Climate change has already led to internal displacement within Papua New Guinea, which can exacerbate social conflict. Warming oceans are expected to deplete fisheries, which are an important part of the economy and local livelihoods. Climate change also contributes to biodiversity loss, as does illegal logging, which is destroying Papua New Guinea’s rainforests at an unsustainable rate.

Papua New Guinea faces high rates of gender-based and family violence. Papua New Guinea’s demographic and health survey 2016–18 found that 56 ­percent of women aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence, and 28 percent have experienced sexual violence. Women are also underrepresented in government, with very few winning seats in parliament. Election violence and intercommunal violence, especially in the highland provinces, are also major challenges. Papua New Guinea’s last national elections in 2022 were marred by violence, as were elections in 2017. Meanwhile, resource extraction, while it is an important part of Papua New Guinea’s economy, can be another driver of conflict, which is why some experts have described the country as having a “resource curse.”

Another element crucial to Papua New Guinea’s stability is the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, an archipelago that lies east of the country’s mainland. A decade-long civil war between Papua New Guinea and Bougainville, and within Bougainville itself, culminated in a 2001 peace agreement that required an independence referendum. The referendum took place 2019, with 97.7 percent of Bougainvillean voters choosing independence. However, the result was nonbinding, and Papua New Guinea’s National Parliament has final say on Bougainville’s future political status. It has yet to make a decision.

USIP’S Initiatives

USIP’s programmatic work in Papua New Guinea (PNG) can be divided into three pillars:

Research and Analysis

USIP is supporting PNG’s National Research Institute (NRI) to identify strategies that can reduce the country’s high rates of interpersonal and community violence. USIP is also supporting research on drivers of conflict and stability in Hela and Morobe — two provinces the United States is prioritizing under the SPCPS.

Forging a Closer Relationship between the United States and Papua New Guinea

In September 2023, USIP convened the first U.S.-Papua New Guinea Strategic Dialogue to build relationships between U.S. and PNG officials and experts and to develop ideas for closer ties between the two countries. USIP also regularly hosts a series of roundtables on peacebuilding approaches in PNG through a variety of lenses, including gender and implementation of the SPCPS. In 2024, USIP launched a dialogue series in Port Moresby called Raunpaia Tok (“round the fire talk”) in partnership with NRI to encourage dialogue between diverse audiences on peacebuilding topics and to support connectivity between U.S. and PNG thought leaders.

USIP training

Support to Local Anti- Violence Initiatives
USIP conducts trainings to address the root causes of gender, family and community violence in Morobe and Bougainville. Since tackling the causes of violence is as important as tackling the symptoms, USIP programs focus on changing the attitudes and behaviors of men by encouraging them to examine their role in families and communities and how they can make positive change.

Related Publications

The Untapped Potential of Grassroots Peacebuilding in Papua New Guinea

The Untapped Potential of Grassroots Peacebuilding in Papua New Guinea

Thursday, May 9, 2024

This past January, deadly riots in Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, spilled over into other towns and cities across the nation. As the dust settled, many held the country’s struggling youth population responsible, at least partially, for kindling the widespread unrest. Papua New Guinea’s government responded by announcing ambitious plans to address a broad range of problems facing youth — a promising move.

Type: Blog

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

Addressing Gendered Violence in Papua New Guinea: Opportunities and Options

Addressing Gendered Violence in Papua New Guinea: Opportunities and Options

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Each year, more than 1.5 million women and girls in Papua New Guinea experience gender-based violence tied to intercommunal conflict, political intimidation, domestic abuse, and other causes. It is, according to a 2023 Human Rights Watch report, “one of the most dangerous places to be a woman or girl.” Bleak as this may seem, it is not hopeless. USIP’s new report identifies several promising approaches for peacebuilding programming to reduce gender-based violence and effect meaningful and lasting change in Papua New Guinea.

Type: Special Report


In the Pacific, Corruption and Poor Policing Open a Door to China

In the Pacific, Corruption and Poor Policing Open a Door to China

Thursday, February 8, 2024

After the Pacific’s largest island nation, Papua New Guinea, recently suffered deadly rioting that included police, an official last week announced a Chinese offer to help strengthen its police force. That sequence exemplifies a rising challenge for democracy and stability in the Pacific: Many island nations suffer corruption and deficient policing that undermines the rule of law. This gap in responsive governance lets China seek influence through technical assistance drawn from its authoritarian model of policing. In response, democracies must reshape narrow, outdated approaches to security assistance.

Type: Analysis

Democracy & GovernanceJustice, Security & Rule of Law

View All Publications