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Pence says US will partner Australia in developing Manus base

A ragged PNG Kumul flag flies at HMPNGS Tarangau, Lombrum Naval Base, with  HMAS Choules in the distance


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


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Martin Auld

'I don't know where Russia comes into the West Papua issue'.

The former Soviet Union not only supported the inclusion of West Papua into Indonesia but gave Sukarno the winning hand when they sent a dozen submarines to TNI, with Soviet crews serving in TNI uniform. They were given instructions to lock on to the Dutch fleet, based in Biak, and the Dutch signed West Papua away seconds later.

Biak is historically symbolic as well as strategic. Russia has a MOU with Jakarta to build a rocket launching site on Biak. The upgraded Russian military exercises in Biak this time last year during which RAAF base Darwin was placed on alert when nuclear capable Tupelovs were in the air, were a direct consequence of the upgraded US Marine rotations in Darwin. [The presence of US forces in Darwin makes RI the polony in the sandwich in a potential US-PRC conflict.]

Jakarta had wanted to be informed in confidence beforehand because it directly affected their security. There's been a trust deficit since 1999, we can't have enough confidence building measures.

US involvement in the Lombrum base doesn't involve transit through Indonesia waters and EEZ and Jakarta will welcome any strategic denial of China [which subsidises the Melanesian Spearhead], though they're unlikely to say so in the public domain. It could even put Jakarta under more pressure to abandon their traditional neutral stance and move toward a US anti China bloc.

TNI will however be concerned that US and Aust forces in both Darwin and Lombrum appear to 'encircle' West Papua and TNI will use this fear to demand more money for basing in Papua. They've already done so successfully in Sorong.

Russia is a UN veto holder.

Look for Jakarta to hedge, and to invite more Russian cooperation.

'it certainly does not have Indonesia on board'

Nobody does. RI is neutral.

We would like them to move from neutrality into a US led bloc, whereas the PRC can accept neutrality. Like PNG Jakarta is using the present state of great power rivalry to extract whatever it can. Shake the tree collect the goodies.

Russia wants more military sales, Jakarta wants more Sukhois but cheaper. Jakarta doesn't possess a good array of early warning radars, they need stronger more reliable batteries. China has offered to provide them with a new array.

Martin Auld

Now we have Indonesia and Russia on one half of the island, the US and Australia on the other. Jakarta was upset when we didn't inform them ahead of the media when the upgraded US rotations in Darwin were announced. Wonder if things have improved enough to have given them a heads up in confidence this time.

I don't know where Russia comes into the West Papua issue. While Russia aspires to a visible presence in south-east Asia, it certainly does not have Indonesia on board at present. See for example the report below from East Asia Forum (June 2018) which explains just how difficult this may be - KJ

Will Self

Incidentally, the Administrative Report on the Manumanu purchase is posted on the PNGi website. That would have to be the biggest ever fraud on the people of PNG - and the most sophisticated.

Lindsay F Bond

Yes, Will. That will save the cost of defence as was needed at Scapa Flow and the engagement of netting that thwarts sub-surface penetration.

Will Self

Surely they should develop the Manumanu Naval Base. That is why the State paid K46 million for land that is four kilometers inland.

Bernard Corden

Any collaboration from the US begins at 30,000 feet.

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