The United States will be able to station troops and ships at military bases in Papua New Guinea (PNG) under a new security deal that could be pivotal in a clash with China over Taiwan. The new defence cooperation agreement adds Papua New Guinea, which spans close to 180,000 square miles across the South Pacific, to a growing arc of regional alliances to counter China’s expanding military ambitions.
US beats China to build new military bases in Papua New Guinea
Agreement of 15-year pact could grant American forces vital staging grounds in the event of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait
By Nicola Smith, ASIA CORRESPONDENT, 15 June 2023 1:44pm
The United States will be able to station troops and ships at military bases in Papua New Guinea (PNG) under a new security deal that could be pivotal in a clash with China over Taiwan.
The new defence cooperation agreement adds Papua New Guinea, which spans close to 180,000 square miles across the South Pacific, to a growing arc of regional alliances to counter China’s expanding military ambitions.
The 15-year pact was secured by Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, on a rare visit to Port Moresby that signalled the strategic importance of the Pacific nation, which is located just north of Australia and was the site of fierce battles during the Second World War.
The deal was signed last month but details of its scope only emerged this week, revealing that US troops have been given “unimpeded access” to key local defence facilities, that include the Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island, as well as airports in Port Moresby, Lae and Momote.
Washington would be allowed to use the sites to “pre-position equipment, supplies and material”, and have “exclusive use” of some zones, where development and “construction activities” could be carried out, according to one document.
The deal also includes surveillance, reconnaissance activities, bunkering of vessels and the deploying of forces, reported Australia’s ABC.
It could grant US forces vital staging grounds in the event of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait or elsewhere in the contested South China Sea.
Lombrum is a coveted deep-water port that has historically been used as a garrison for British, German, Japanese, Australian and US troops, and where China has also sought to establish a presence in recent years.
Beijing’s own security pact with the neighbouring Solomon Islands, inked in 2022, set off alarm bells that it could pave the way for Chinese troops and naval warships being posted less than 1,200 miles from the Australian coast.
During the Second World War both the Solomons and PNG were central to allied efforts to recapture the Philippines from Japan. The two nations are now being drawn increasingly into the growing rivalry between China and the US as they jostle for influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
Former Chinese premier Li Keqiang and Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare
Former Chinese premier Li Keqiang and Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare. Beijing signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands in 2022 CREDIT: Thomas Peter/Pool Reuters
Several Asian nations are also ramping up defence cooperation with Washington as regional capitals become more nervous about China’s military build-up and the potential for conflict.
In February, the Philippines gave a green light to expanded access for US forces in bases in the north and west of the country, facing possible flashpoints over Taiwan and contested features of the South China Sea.
The US has also started talks with Japan about having its ally host a new multifunction army unit, handling long-range strikes, air defence, intelligence, cyberwarfare, electronic warfare and logistics support, Nikkei Asia reported on Thursday.
Washington has long stressed the indispensable role of the Indo-Pacific and its trillion-dollar trade routes to global security.
At the time of the signing of the PNG security pact, Mr Blinken said: “We’re deeply invested in the Indo-Pacific because our planet’s future is being written here.”
James Marape, the PNG prime minister, said the deal was mutually beneficial and “secures our national interests” in “becoming a robust economy in this part of the world”.
But he faces mounting domestic criticism that it could put the resource-rich country at greater risk of being drawn into a war.
Peter O’Neill, the former prime minister, said the agreement painted a target on Papua New Guinea’s back.
“America is doing it for the protection of their own national interest, we all understand the geopolitics happening within our region,” he said.