Amid the United States maintaining nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad, what's one more base in the South Pacific?
At a moment when China is also reported to be eyeing deep water development around Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, the United States and Australia have announced plans to build a joint naval base there.
Vice President Mike Pence unveiled the plan on Saturday at a Asia-Pacific forum hosted by Papua New Guinea (PNG) where world leaders discussed trade and accessibility of international waters at a time when China is growing more brazen in laying claim to sea and air space in the South China Sea. The push comes as regional powers compete to firm up alliances and maintain access to key infrastructure ensuring open navigation and ease of unimpeded trade routes.
Announcing the US-Australian military base, VP Pence said, “We will work with these nations to protect the sovereignty and maritime rights of Pacific islands as well.” In what appeared a passing shot at China, Pence continued, “And you can be confident, the U.S. will continue to uphold the freedom of the seas and the skies.”
Though Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison first discussed his country would fund a development of a base on Manus Island in partnership with the PNG government on November 1st, this is the first time the White House has formally announced the US role in its establishment.
Longtime close US ally Australia has in recent years felt China begin to compete for influence in the Pacific, ending Australia's previously unrivaled influence in the region. China's growing Pacific presence also has huge implications for the United States, as Reuters summarizes:
Analysts say a Chinese presence on Manus Island could impact the West’s ability to navigate the Pacific while offering Beijing close access to U.S. bases in Guam.
Manus Island was a major U.S. naval base during the Second World War, playing a key role in Washington’s Pacific strategy. Recently, it has hosted one of Australia’s two controversial offshore immigration detention centers.
Residents of Manus Island, which has a population of about 50,000, are said to be angry that no representatives of either the US or Aussie governments have consulted them, and have often been at odds with decisions of the central PNG government — something the island's Governor, Charlie Benjamin, told reporters.
Much of the PNG's entire navy is made up of patrol boats and landing craft supplied by Australia — a relationship cultivated over the decades given Papua New Guinea's geographic closeness to the Australian continent.
Meanwhile assuming that Beijing perceives that the new US Pacific base is part of a broader trend of American military ships and aircraft being more active in China's perceived backyard, this could only heighten potential aggression during future "intercept" incidents in the area of the South China Sea as it continues to lay claim to what the rest of the world recognizes as international waters.
Chinese President Xi Jinping had addressed the same forum just before the US Vice President, saying in response to White House accusations of Beijing using debt-trap diplomacy:
No-one has the power to stop people from seeking a better life. We should strengthen development cooperation.
And the Chinese president warned further against ramping up the trade war as well as potential military escalation, saying, "hot, cold or trade [war]" could spell catastrophe. "Mankind has once against reached a crossroad," he said. "Which direction should we choose? Cooperation or confrontation, openness or closing one's door?"