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The commander gives us a wake-up call

Kuri pic
One of the world's top military officers, Admiral John C Aquilino, inspects a PNGDF guard of honour


PORT MORESBY - On Sunday 29 January, Admiral John C Aquilino, Commander of the United States’ Indo-Pacific Command, came to Papua New Guinea.

There was not much fanfare and the guard of honour of the PNG Defence Force left a lot to be desired.

But that’s not the point of this article. It's really about what it means for us that one of the most powerful men in the world’s military comes to PNG’s shores.

His Hawai’i-based Command includes 380,000 military personnel, 1,000 aircraft and five aircraft carriers - a strike group that covers 36 nations, 14 time zones and half of the world’s population.

Admiral Aquilino reports to US President Biden through the Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, and for him to visit PNG is a big deal.

Maybe it was planned that his arrival in PNG should be low key or maybe the PNG government didn’t understand the status of who it was entertaining.

The National newspaper stated that the visit was part of the US strategy to establish military hubs in response to China’s growing footprint in the Pacific.

The undertones of the message from the Admiral were very clear: China is a threat to global security and the US will ensure the protection of its interests in the Indo-Pacific region.

The US has a long list of allies it can rely on in the region and it was evident the Admiral was visiting them both to strengthen unity and to understand the facilities at its disposal.

There are two power blocs in the Indo-Pacific. On one side there are Russia, China and North Korea and on the other the US treaty allies (Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, Thailand), the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and a number of trilateral, quadrilateral and other groupings.

Which bloc wields the most power is a question that cannot be answered accurately except to say that both have huge militaries and weaponry.

A Long March 3B rocket lifts off from the Xichang launch centre carrying another satellite for the Beidou-3 navigation system (CASC)

China has greatly expanded its land, sea and undersea capacities. The People’s Liberation Army navy is the biggest naval force in the world.

Its vast progress in military technology includes its Beidou-3 global satellite navigation system with 35 satellites that have many peaceful uses and also warfare capabilities in weapons targeting and guidance and other facilities.

Most notably it removes previous Chinese military reliance on the US GPS system.

China has also developed a myriad of nuclear options to ensure second strike capabilities and a hypersonic glide missile systems to evade US missile defences.

There are lots of moving parts as the US and its allies manoeuvre to be in a position to neutralise China in the event of a confrontation.

But China is now gaining a lot of ground in the Pacific with its Belt and Road initiative and bilateral treaties which look like a precursor to military intervention.

Hence, the US Indo-Pacific Command’s Admiral John C Aquilino’s need to move swiftly and decisively.

While Australia, caught between China and the US, is playing tightrope diplomacy, PNG seems to be taking a nonchalant approach.

It seems to be a case of ‘if you don’t give me what I want, I’ll go over to the other side.

For the time being, this may work in attracting the investment that PNG needs, but the government must be aware of the positions and requirements of the major actors.

The visit by Admiral Aquilino attests to the gravity of a situation in which China is expansionist and the US wants to keep it at bay, the reason why it’s spending so much on military installations in Guam and which it could also do in PNG in the form of a multi–modal hub.

The tipping point for regional military conflict seems most likely to be Taiwan.

The PLA and the PLA navy have been conducting aggressive military exercises in the South China and East China seas.

If the invasion of Ukraine by Russia was any indication, we may see the same response from the US when China does invade Taiwan, which seems to be a foregone conclusion.

Admiral John C Aquilino’s visit to PNG reminds us that we and the other Pacific Islands are part of this great game, whether we like it or not.


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Chris Overland

The visit to PNG by a 4-Star US navy admiral is a significant symbol of the USA's pivot to the Asia-Pacific region.

It was president Obama who declared that this reorientation would occur, and the Trump and Biden administrations have carried on the process.

The Ukraine War has necessarily diverted some attention to Europe and NATO but the determination to confront Chinese expansionist ambitions in the Asia Pacific has not abated.

As mentioned by John Kuri, the US Pacific fleet is an organisation whose size, firepower and reach dwarfs that of any other individual military power on earth except, perhaps, that of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

While it is true that the PLAN has grown in both numbers and firepower over the last decade or so, it needs to be borne in mind that it is still fundamentally structured for defence not power projection.

For example, the PLAN has three aircraft carriers, two of which are based upon old Soviet designs. There is nothing to match the USA's Nimitz class vessels, nor their extremely capable Arleigh Burke class air warfare destroyers nor their newest hunter killer nuclear submarines.

Talk of the supposedly awesome powers of hypersonic missiles is overblown. Detecting, targeting and effectively striking an aircraft carrier somewhere in the vast Pacific Ocean is much, much harder than either China's propaganda outlets or the Western popular media often suggest.

The re-engagement with PNG will reflect the US military's belief that in any Pacific conflict the country will be strategically significant, just as it was in World War II.

PNG has excellent harbours in strategically useful locations along its northern coast and amongst islands such as Manus, Bougainville and New Ireland.

Were serious conflict to erupt the Pacific fleet would want access to those ports for logistic reasons and, very possibly, to some of PNG's airports as well.

Make no mistake, a major conflict in Asia-Pacific would soon engulf Australia, PNG and other Pacific Island nations as well.

As the Ukraine War has demonstrated, it is very easy to start a war but very hard to end it on favourable terms.

We must all hope that both the Chinese and US military leadership are very conscious of this fact and hard-headed enough to make sure that their respective political leaders understand that military adventures have a nasty capacity to go very, very wrong for everyone involved.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Great article John - sane and to the point.

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