US and Australia to build joint naval base in Papua New Guinea

The US has joined Australia on plans to redevelop a base on Manus Island

Scott Morrison (far left) met with Papua New Guinean leader Peter O'Neill (center) and Mike Pence (far right) last week.

Scott Morrison (far left) met with Papua New Guinean leader Peter O'Neill (center) and Mike Pence (far right) last week. (AP photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — In the face of China’s expanding military presence over the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. and Australia have agreed to join forces and construct a naval military base on the Papua New Guinean Manus Island.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence met Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the 2018 APEC Economic Leaders Meeting in Port Moresby last week. According to media reports, the two came to an agreement to redevelop the old Lobrum naval base on Manus Island at the request of Papua New Guinea.

Lobrum naval base was originally established by the U.S. during World War II, after Papua New Guinea was recaptured from Japan. After U.S. forces receded from the Pacific, the Australian Navy took over operations, using it largely as a refueling station. It was handed over to Papua New Guinea upon its independence from Australia.

The new development plan will foresee the expansion of the base to accommodate Australian navy vessels. Australia announced its commitment to the project last month, but details on U.S. involvement including financing plans are yet to be revealed.

BBC reports that Pence said the facility would demonstrate the U.S.’s commitment to an “open and free Indo-Pacific” and its promise to “stand with countries across this region who are anxious to partner with [the U.S.] for security.”

Critics are viewing the move as a pushback against China’s ever-growing presence and influence across the Pacific Ocean.

The Pacific contains just a small number of tiny island nations scattered throughout its great expanse. The majority enjoy strong diplomatic ties with Australia.

Recently however, China has been buying support from these states through investment and infrastructural projects. Many believe it is part of a larger objective to impose upon Australia itself, with whom China currently has rocky relations due to continued allegations over spying and attempts to compromise national security.

China has continued to woo Papua New Guinea with investments over recent years. The country contributed a total US$2.46 billion to the island nation in 2017—most of which was for Belt and Road infrastructural developments.

During his visit for the 2018 APEC summit, Xi Jinping officially opened the new Chinese-funded Independence Boulevard, which stretches from the Papua New Guinea parliamentary building in Port Moresby. Critics have dubbed it a “road to nowhere”, indicative only of China’s need to display dominance in the region.

Despite accepting its economic assistance, the request for the redevelopment of a naval base likely signifies that Papua New Guinea still remains apprehensive about China.