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Papua New Guinea and the US Indo-Pacific Strategy

Written by: (Contributed) on 19 July 2023


(Above: Signing the US-PNG Defence agreement     Photo source: ABC)

A major diplomatic statement from a well-placed source in Canberra about planned sensitive military facilities in PNG has shown how the South Pacific has become a front-line for Australian military and security with the wider region. Reference to the US and their Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) partners was also contained in the statement showing how it has become the core of US regional foreign policy.

In early July, the Strategic Analysis Australia in conjunction with the National Security College, issued a major statement about US regional foreign policy in general, with specific reference to PNG. (1) In recent times, due to the changing balance of forces with the rise of China, countries such as PNG have become more sensitive to military planners in Canberra and the Pentagon.

The timing of the statement coincided with similar moves made between Canberra and Indonesia with a high-level contact established with President Joko Widodo visiting Australia in early July. It was noted, 'in the diplomatic sphere, direct engagement is an opportunity to build on a key strategic partnership as the Indo-Pacific becomes increasingly fraught'. (2)

Reference in the PNG report, likewise, was made to the Milne Bay area being assessed for military facilities; the sheltered deep-water harbour surrounded by heavily wooded terrain has made the area ideal for covert US-led regional operations. Previous attention given to the Lombrum facilities on Manus Island have proved highly controversial with complaints from local land-owners. Milne Bay also faces Fiji, another Pacific country with a strategically-placed deep-water harbour, used by submarines for regional operations.

There is also another important reason why Milne Bay has been chosen over Manus Island for the defence and security of 'US interests'. Milne Bay faces a multitude of small island chains, including the Calvados Chain reaching to Rossel and Adele Islands. They are situated on a straight line from the Kuril Islands in the northern hemisphere through Australian military bases in Queensland, at 153 degrees east and face the western Pacific between 10 and 30 degrees south and the Solomon and Coral Seas. (3)

The Kuril Islands mark the beginning of Pentagon regional military planning with Island Chain Theory, a re-used relic of the previous Cold War now upgraded for containing and encircling perceived Chinese interests. Island chains are used for regional demarcation to restrict easy access and egress into the wider Oceania.

Of the nine military bases in Queensland, Lavarack in Townsville remains the most important, hosting the Third Brigade of the Combat Signals Regiment. It is also not surprising to find the arc from Lavarack to Milne Bay also swings through Darwin, used by the US for troop rotations into the wider Indo-Pacific. (4)

References in the diplomatic statement to the 'US agreeing to share satellite data with PNG', is also evidence of the strategic significance of Milne Bay. (5) While the US is able to spy on the entire world with their surveillance and monitoring systems, they require local knowledge to identify areas of interest from agents and 'ground human'. Local people in the Milne Bay area, for example, would have experience of islands and population movements between the small land-masses which have become more sensitive in recent times.

It is also significant to note references in the diplomatic statement to other US allies included in their Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), as lower-level partners: Taiwan, South Korea, India, and others. (6) The Japan-South Korea General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) is regarded by the US as 'essential as a military intelligence sharing framework for trilateral missile defence as a key axis in the IPS targeting China', and has four key points: the US, Australia, India and Japan, with the enclosed area including strategic assets for 'US interests', particularly in Asia. (7)

Recent regional assessments have revealed how the US has been pressurising Australia to upgrade its influences in South-east Asia to counter China's large regional aid program. (8) A total of $55.7 million was allocated in the recent federal budget to 'deepen ties with South-east Asia'. (9) At present Australia's two-way trade with the area of the Indo-Pacific only amounts to fourteen per cent of its total trade. (10) China, by contrast, has increased its regional diplomacy during the last decade by using programs based on mutual benefits with a $38 billion program launched in 2015 and completed in 2021. (11) 

When PNG signed a Defence Co-operation Agreement with the US in May, to enable the Pentagon to deploy assets to selected PNG bases, it was noted that 'PNG will become a key location to build some real influence in Melanesia', and that they were placing themselves in the front-line of US-led regional hostilities. (12)

Australia should really consider an independent foreign policy before it is too late to prevent the drift into real-war scenarios, most likely through rapid escalation of hostilities elsewhere in the region.

It is not idle speculation: a recent study conducted by the University of Technology, Sydney, and their Australia-China Relations Institute, for example, found most Australians thought military conflict with China a distinct possibility within the next three years, and fewer than half thought the AUKUS military agreement will make Australia a safer place. (13)

1.     America walks the walk in battle for Pacific minds, Australian, 10 July 2023.    
2.     Canberra-Jakarta union to bolster growth, security, Australian, 3 July 2023.
3.     See: Peters Projection, Map of the World, Actual Size.
4.     Ibid.
5.     Australian, op.cit., 10 July 2023.
6.     The reasons behind Washington's push for GSOMIA., Hankyoreh, 12 November 2019.
7.     Ibid.
8.     China holds regional sway with $38 bn aid, Australian, 5 June 2023.
9.     Risks and rewards in Asia, Australian, 6 July 2023.
10.   Ibid.
11.   Australian, op.cit., 5 June 2023.
12.   Australian, op.cit., 10 July 2023.
13.   War with China on the cards, says poll, Australian, 11 July 2023.


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