ANDREW KORYBKO* | Asia Pacific Research | Edited
MONTREAL - Australia’s plans to return to the Lombrum naval base on Manus that it previously occupied in Papua New Guinea prior to independence in a power play for leadership in the South Pacific on behalf of the Quad’s desire to contain China in this strategic space.
(The Quad is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue comprising the United States, Japan, India and Australia.)
This is significant for many reasons, not least of which is that Australia used to run a so-called “offshore immigration camp” here until it was closed last year after reports about the scandalous humanitarian state of its detainees caused global indignation.
More than 500 refugee men remain virtually trapped in so-called ‘transition centres’ on Manus.
Another driving factor is Australia’s interest in competing with and ultimately curtailing Chinese influence in PNG, which Canberra regards as falling within its ‘sphere of influence’.
The general trend is that Australia is engineering fake news scandals about China’s unproven military plans in the region to justify the expansion of its influence in the South Pacific through military means.
The US is more than happy to support its ‘lead from behind’ partner and, speculatively, even order it to undertake these actions because of their shared interests in containing China.
For its part, China seeks to sway the South Pacific states away from the West by wooing them with grants, loans and investments doled out as part of its One Belt One Road global vision of New Silk Road connectivity.
In the regional context this carries with it the possibility of encouraging the defection of six of the last states to recognise Taiwan and strategically securing the sea lines of communication between China and South America. This makes China’s economic policies in the region a means for achieving symbolic but also substantial ends.
The strategic importance of the Australian navy’s return to Manus is that it could herald an American presence as well, which could altogether allow the US to control the sea space between PNG and Guam, essentially cutting off China from the rest of the South Pacific in the event of any crisis between the two great powers.
There’s also a fear Beijing could clandestinely gather intelligence on some of the Quad’s naval vessels travelling between the US and Australia and Australia and Japan given these islands’ central location along the sea lines of communication.
Australia is its ally of preference in doing so because of its historical legacy of ‘leadership’ in the region, and PNG is the main point of attention because of its location, natural resource wealth and rapidly expanding Chinese influence.
PNG is also the largest and most populated country in the Pacific islands, so co-opting it is thought to be a means through which the other countries could fall in line.
The same logic can also explain one of the reasons why China is so interested in PNG.
Taken together, the Quad’s concentration on Fiji and now PNG is nothing more than a power play designed to contain China while China’s Silk Road engagement efforts with these two countries and their smaller peers are designed to pre-emptively break through this containment network, strategically secure its sea lines to South America and monitor the Quad.
* Andrew Korybko is an American Moscow-based political analyst