PORT MORESBY - The United States will join forces with Australia and Papua New Guinea in the redevelopment of a naval base in Manus, a move designed to curb China's influence in the Pacific.
Australia recently announced its own plans to redevelop the decrepit Lombrum naval base in a bid to lock China out from developing its own facility in PNG.
Now US vice-president Mike Pence has announced his country will join in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Lombrum.
"The United States will partner with PNG and Australia on their joint initiative," he said.
"We will work with these two nations to protect sovereignty and maritime rights in the Pacific islands."
Pence said the US vision for the region was about “collaboration, not control”.
“Empire and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific - this is a region where every nation large and small must be permitted to prosper and thrive,” he said.
"We don't offer constricting belts or a one-way road," he said in a line apparently meant to mock China vaunted ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative.
The Lombrum base will ensure that the US and Australian have a deep water port big enough for aircraft carriers and other warships.
The scale of the US commitment is not known and it is not clear whether US vessels will be permanently based in Manus.
PNG now finds itself in the middle of one of the 21st century's geopolitical hotspots as a battle for influence in the Pacific unfolds.
The APEC meeting in Port Moresby has presented itself as a piece of political theatre, with the Pence statement taking the prize for best prop so far.
It represents a dramatic escalation of effort by the US and Australia to grab the strategic initiative in the Pacific from a resurgent China.
China has showered billions of dollars of infrastructure loans on island nations, some of whom sit astride sea lanes vital to international shipping and which provide potential bases to project military and economic power.
In his own speech to APEC, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison sought to tread carefully between his country’s military alliance with the US and critical trade relationship with China.
"Inevitably, in the period ahead, we will be navigating a higher degree of US-China strategic competition," he said.
The Pence announcement is likely to irritate president Xi Jinping and stir tensions with China. At the time of writing Xi had not responded to the Pence statement nor to his taunt on belt and road.
The planned base redevelopment has already generated criticism from Manus, where people believe they were played for mugs on the Australian development of refugee camps on the island.
In an earlier speech to APEC, president Xi warned against the escalation of trade and military tensions, saying a "hot, cold or trade [war]" could spell catastrophe.
"Mankind has once against reached a crossroad. Which direction should we choose? Cooperation or confrontation, openness or closing one's door?"
Sources: AFP, News Ltd, ABC, SBS