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Analysing the power play against China in the South Pacific

Australian-navy-off-coast-PNG
A Royal Australian Navy warship off the coast of Papua New Guinea

ANDREW KORYBKO* | Asia Pacific Research | Edited

MONTREAL - Australia’s plans to return to the Lombrum naval base on Manus that it previously occupied in Papua New Guinea prior to independence in a power play for leadership in the South Pacific on behalf of the Quad’s desire to contain China in this strategic space.

(The Quad is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue comprising the United States, Japan, India and Australia.)

This is significant for many reasons, not least of which is that Australia used to run a so-called “offshore immigration camp” here until it was closed last year after reports about the scandalous humanitarian state of its detainees caused global indignation.

More than 500 refugee men remain virtually trapped in so-called ‘transition centres’ on Manus.

Another driving factor is Australia’s interest in competing with and ultimately curtailing Chinese influence in PNG, which Canberra regards as falling within its ‘sphere of influence’.

The general trend is that Australia is engineering fake news scandals about China’s unproven military plans in the region to justify the expansion of its influence in the South Pacific through military means.

The US is more than happy to support its ‘lead from behind’ partner and, speculatively, even order it to undertake these actions because of their shared interests in containing China.

For its part, China seeks to sway the South Pacific states away from the West by wooing them with grants, loans and investments doled out as part of its One Belt One Road global vision of New Silk Road connectivity.

In the regional context this carries with it the possibility of encouraging the defection of six of the last states to recognise Taiwan and strategically securing the sea lines of communication between China and South America. This makes China’s economic policies in the region a means for achieving symbolic but also substantial ends.

The strategic importance of the Australian navy’s return to Manus is that it could herald an American presence as well, which could altogether allow the US to control the sea space between PNG and Guam, essentially cutting off China from the rest of the South Pacific in the event of any crisis between the two great powers.

There’s also a fear Beijing could clandestinely gather intelligence on some of the Quad’s naval vessels travelling between the US and Australia and Australia and Japan given these islands’ central location along the sea lines of communication.

Australia is its ally of preference in doing so because of its historical legacy of ‘leadership’ in the region, and PNG is the main point of attention because of its location, natural resource wealth and rapidly expanding Chinese influence.

PNG is also the largest and most populated country in the Pacific islands, so co-opting it is thought to be a means through which the other countries could fall in line.

The same logic can also explain one of the reasons why China is so interested in PNG.

Taken together, the Quad’s concentration on Fiji and now PNG is nothing more than a power play designed to contain China while China’s Silk Road engagement efforts with these two countries and their smaller peers are designed to pre-emptively break through this containment network, strategically secure its sea lines to South America and monitor the Quad.

* Andrew Korybko is an American Moscow-based political analyst

Comments

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Martin Auld

'That was a tongue in cheek.'

As they used to say in Indonesia - 'join TNI and go to Freeport with an M16, come home with 16M [rupiah]'

Philip Fitzpatrick

That was a tongue in cheek comment Martin.

I was suggesting that Australia gaily goes ahead and re-establishes all its old bases.

I'll be less subtle in future.

Martin Auld

'Maybe that needs to be looked at with regard to the Indonesians.'

Why?

What could we learn that we don't already know? What are they doing? Protecting their national interests? I'm shocked.

Protecting tuna in West Papua from theft by Chinese vessels in PNG waters? Bribing locals for a heads up on OPM movements or planned terrorist attacks on Freeport?

Monitoring Lae for OPM picking up guns shipped in from Mindanao? The odd hot pursuit? Inviting border dwellers to participate in the Indonesian hearts and minds Border Program of health clinics schools and markets? Or?

An Australian military base in Vanimo would be just the excuse TNI needs to demand more rupiahs for a new base in Skouw. Thereafter Australia would be accused of failing to prevent or worse supporting every OPM attack on Freeport. Encircled with US and ADF troops in Darwin and Vanimo ready to invade. Paranoia unbound.

Is this really the way to go when we're hoping to induce Jakarta to abandon neutrality and jump into the anti China bloc? IOM are training POLRI in West Papua in community policing.

It's a loooong way from IOM's migration mandate and skills set but isn't confidence building and transparency the way to proceed rather than 1960s paranoia?

Philip Fitzpatrick

There used to be an Australian military base at Vanimo.

Maybe that needs to be looked at with regard to the Indonesians.

Peter Sandery

So did Russia, Gabriel. I agree with your comments about Indonesia though.

Gabriel Ramoi

Didn't China fight alongside the United States and Australia to contain Japan in very recent history? All of a sudden China is now the new boogie man of the world.

China remains the most successful socialist state that has defied all odds and has demonstrated the superiority of its socialist market economy which has contributed to lifting over 800 million of its people out of poverty.

China is now helping poor developing countries in Africa and the Pacific build critical infrastructure to help reduce poverty in those countries in exchange for their mineral wealth which China needs to sustain its rapid growth and, incidentally, the growth of the world economy including that of Australia and PNG.

China is certainly challenging the world order once dominated by Western institutions such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund and their failed prescription in addressing global poverty.

China does not need a naval base in New Guinea but it certainly does need a terminal port in northern New Guinea to cut the down time for its merchant fleet from southern China to reach South America.

Peru sits in a straight line from Vanimo on the other side of the Pacific and I will not be surprised if PNG offers China a terminal facility in that region. We certainly need Australia in Manus to keep an eye on Indonesia, not China.

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