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Papua New Guinea: A new site for great power rivalry?

Image credit: Mike Pence (Creative Commons)

The decision to bolster existing naval base on Manus Island has thrust Papua New Guinea into the centre of Indo-Pacific geopolitics in such a manner as it hasn’t experienced since the Second World War. At the bidding of Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, the United States and Australia will undertake a joint expansion of the Lombrum Naval Base located on the northern rim of the South Pacific. This will dramatically expand US military presence in the region.

US involvement was revealed during a speech given by Vice President Mike Pence at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) annual meeting held in Port Moresby over the weekend. The speech also included a series of strong accusations were made against China about its alleged responsibility for the heightened trade war, ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ and bullish state activities. With reference to the sanctity of shipping lanes and maritime rights, the US vice-president firmly placed the naval base-announcement within the broader context of great power rivalry.

Because of its important strategic position, an operational naval base on Manus Island could act as a buffer against growing Chinese influence and security posturing within the South Pacific, as well as across the broader region. It is likely intended to counter perceptions of Chinese grand strategy in the Indo-Pacific.

This may provoke a further escalation in the geopolitical long game, including in the South China Sea. Although many details are yet to be released, including costings and level of stationed forces, a US military presence in the South Pacific would be a direct compliment to the regional US extended security network already in place in its Darwin, Guam and Japanese bases.

This comes at a critical juncture for the South Pacific: often sidelined by major states, this region is being increasingly targeted by both sides of the emerging US-China divide for influence and power. This was witnessed at APEC with specific side-meetings and events hosted by both China and the US.

There have been widespread discussions about the influence of China in the South Pacific through aid and development initiatives. Indeed, Chinese diplomatic, economic and aid engagement in the region has been well documented since 2006. Lowy Institute data highlights the aid paper trails. Despite not having political-level relations with some Pacific Island states, China is the fourth largest donor to the region at US$113 million in 2016, with pledges of US$4 billion in aid. They are also a major trading partner.

Fears of hawkish security posturing by the Chinese in the Pacific has in part been driven by revelations in April 2018 that China had designs on building a permanent military base on Vanuatu. This would significantly impact the balance of power for South Pacific states, Australia and the US. As it stands, this intention has not moved closer to reality. But this episode comes after the delivery of US$243 million in development money from China to Vanuatu since 2006, including for government building reconstructions and critical wharf infrastructure. China also accounts for approximately half of Vanuatu’s foreign debt.

Australia sees itself as security guarantor and primary stakeholder of the Pacific Islands. For example, Australia is currently the largest aid contributor by a margin of over 400 per cent above the second highest, New Zealand. Ongoing perceptions of Chinese encroachment on Australia’s ‘doorstep’ and a potential military base in Vanuatu have hardened policy platforms which act to counter China in the region.

Last month Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made a recommitment to the region with promises of new diplomatic missions, enhanced defence cooperation and other investment initiatives. In the past, Australia-Pacific relations have been marked by inconsistent political investment. Morrison’s latest remarks are part of a realisation in Canberra that the Pacific will be neglected at Australia’s peril.

In regard to PNG, despite sending a strong signal of alignment, inviting the US and Australia to expand the Lombrum base paints a confusing picture overall. The announcement came one day after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to PNG, culminating in the signing of a new Memorandum of Understanding.

PNG seems to have exploited its opportunity as host of APEC to play both sides: it is centring itself within emerging international power divergence for national gain. In June, Prime Minister O’Neill floated the idea of China funding the same Manus Island base, followed by decisive action by the Australians. This is a risky strategy, but with a host of critical health, economic and political problems, there are many incentives for the PNG government to attract the attention, investment and bargaining power of the US and China.

To some degree this is already working. Evidenced by Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne announcing an expansion of the ‘Pacific Labour Scheme’ on November 15, which will now include PNG citizens as well as those of other South Pacific Nations as eligible to attain seasonal work in Australia.

How China reacts to the naval base expansion will be paramount. Indeed, this announcement is a core ingredient in the overall failure of the APEC summit to reach a final communique, with disagreements between China and the US on trade issues as well. This is not a good result for PNG.

In this way, PNG has played host to the most recent inflammation of tensions between the US and China. Much is yet to unfold, but this is the latest incident for control and influence in the Indo-Pacific. As the least developed and under-resourced APEC member state, PNG is playing a dangerous game with some very powerful friends.

Mason Littlejohn is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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