Put rights before resources: Toroama
The quiet militarisation of the Pacific

New strategy boosts US presence in PNG

L128 approaching Lombrum Naval Base
HMAS Labuan approaching Lombrun naval base at dusk. The landing craft made many visits to PNG between 1973 and 2005. She was retired in 2014 after a remarkable 43 years in service


SUNSHINE BEACH, QLD - Papua New Guinea and other Pacific Island states can expect more attention from the good old US of A as the Biden administration continues to push the ‘undo’ button on Trump era isolationism.

There has been a marked increase in US engagement in the region following the launch of its new Indo-Pacific strategy in mid-February.

This coincided with the visit of secretary of state Anthony Blinken to Fiji, the arrival of a US Coast Guard vessel in Port Moresby and the announcement to re-open the US embassy in Solomon Islands.

This return to the partnership approach of the Obama years, which was also a response to China, reveals a new urgency activated by the ascendant, boisterous president Xi and the existential threat of climate change.

The Indo-Pacific strategy aims to broaden and deepen US relationships with the region by bolstering security, building resilience to external political threat and emphasising economic growth.

It commits the US to open new embassies and consulates, upgrade development assistance, strengthen trade ties and boost economic engagement.

The closure of the original US embassy in Honiara in 1993 – just five years after it had opened – symbolised the beginning of an era in which the Pacific was very much an afterthought.

But over the last 10 years China’s influence has grown significantly in the Pacific islands through strenuous diplomacy, investment and aid.

The recent visit to Port Moresby by a US Coast Guard vessel was an outward indication of ongoing discussions between the US and PNG not only on illegal fishing but on building maritime capacity and ‘domain awareness’ – a euphemism for closer scrutiny of ‘undesirable’ naval and intelligence operations.

In 2018, the US said it would join an Australian effort to push back against China’s expanding presence in the Pacific by assisting in the modernisation of PNG’s main naval base at Lombrum on Manus Island.

But it was only last year that Australia awarded a $175 million contract to redevelop Lombrum, the delay attributed to the Covid pandemic.

The contract was awarded to Australian company Clough but it was announced that construction will involve US navy personnel.

At the time, PNG’s then defence force commander said the upgrade would significantly improve PNG's maritime security capabilities including enabling an increase in personnel from 200 to 400.

The US will also support improved access to digital technology to ensure cyber security and cohesion with its own platforms.

Resilience is a common theme through the Indo-Pacific strategy, being mentioned 14 times in the 19-page document, including in the context of climate change.

The US committed to promoting climate resilience through the Pacific Region Infrastructure Facility which it already supports along with Australia, Japan, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank.

While there will be many people in PNG and the Pacific pleased to see a more engaged US, climate resilient infrastructure is a consolation prize for nations which are among the world’s most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Mike Pence
Then US vice president Mike Pence makes his way along the Poroporena Highway during the APEC summit in Port Moresby in 2018 (Pence FIFO'd the conference spending each night in Cairns) 

The US remains the world’s second largest carbon dioxide emitter but despite strong rhetorical commitments from the Biden administration there has been little meaningful progress.

It is also understood that climate change action and the new posture on Indo-Pacific engagement may be dependent on electoral outcomes in a politically-divided USA.

Congressional mid-term elections this year will be an important litmus test ahead of the 2024 presidential race which may see a return to ‘America first’ isolationism.

While the US is giving signs of positive engagement in the Pacific, its effectiveness requires a long-term commitment that is predictable and reliable.

The new Solomon Islands embassy and other initiatives need to endure, but for now it’s difficult to see beyond the US presidential election in 2024.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)