Australian war ships will make port visits to an enlarged naval base on Papua New Guinea, expanding the Navy’s presence to Australia’s north as concerns rise over Chinese interest in the region.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed on Thursday afternoon he had signed an agreement with PNG counterpart Peter O’Neill for a joint redevelopment of the naval base at Lombrum, Manus Island.
Australia is expected to pay for much of the upgrade — a signal of the government’s eagerness to hold onto its status as PNG’s preferred security partner rather than risk having Beijing step in and fill the role.
“This initiative will further enhance interoperability between our defence forces, and deepen our maritime security co-operation, including through increased Australian ship visits over time,” Mr Morrison said.
He said the redevelopment of the base – which was established by the US during World War II and later used by Australian naval ships for resupply in the 1950s and 1960s – would more broadly boost the “strong partnership with the PNG national government” and provide economic opportunities for Manus Islanders.
Australia and other countries in the region will be watching closely the upcoming APEC meeting in Port Moresby, where China will have a heavy presence. Chinese President Xi Jinping is making a full state visit and will arrive two days before the meeting to hold his own talks with Pacific leaders.
China has been busily helping the PNG government develop infrastructure and there were reportedly fears that it might finance a new port on Manus Island, which would have prompted concern in Canberra as it would have boosted Beijing’s strategic influence.
The Chief of the Royal Australian Navy, Vice Admiral Mike Noonan, said the redevelopment was “hugely important” to deepening ties with PNG and added that Australian ships could visit the base for resupplying.
“We operate in and around that region quite routinely. We’ve got a number of patrol boats operating up there through the north end of Australia at the moment,” he said.
He said the base would be helpful for Australian ships when “there is a logistic requirement for us to pop in there and maybe spend a couple of days in the region engaging with local people”.
He said the size of the Australian ships able to use the base would depend on the final redevelopment, though it would not be able to dock Australia’s largest warships, the 200-metre Landing Helicopter Docks.
Fairfax Media understands the principal aim is to allow the base to host more patrol vessels, meaning Australia and PNG could carry out joint exercises and operations. But it would be useful if larger vessels such as Australia’s frigates – which would typically carry out longer-range missions – could also use the facility. That will depend on the final details negotiated between the two countries.
Scholars say Lombrum is well-located strategically because it gives clear access to the Pacific Ocean, where China is expected to increasingly challenge traditional US naval dominance.
A Chinese naval ship recently challenged the USS Decatur in the South China Sea – nearly causing a collision – while the American destroyer was carrying out a “freedom of navigation” exercise – sailing close to one of China’s artificial island to challenge its dubious territorial claim.
The US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, who was visiting Canberra on Thursday, said China had breached normal safe and professional protocols and hoped they would not do it again.
“Clearly the incident around the Decatur encounter departed from that. We would hope that future operations would return to adherence to this,” he said.
Asked later during a conference call what kind of increase in Chinese naval activity he was seeing in the region, Admiral Richardson said: “China is clearly a growing nation in a major strategic expansion and so we should not surprised that maritime activity in the region is increasing, including Chinese maritime activity.”
Admiral Richardson said he and Vice Admiral Noonan had discussed freedom-of-navigation operations but it was Australia’s own decision whether it wanted to carry those out.