US, Australia to develop naval base

By BLOOMBERG

CANBERRA • The US will join Australia in redeveloping a naval base in Papua New Guinea as the two allies try to counter China’s growing strategic influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

VP Mike Pence announced the partnership on Saturday at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, where escalating trade tensions between the US and China loomed large.

“We will work with these two nations to protect sovereignty and maritime rights in the Pacific Islands,” Pence said in his keynote address to regional leaders and business executives.

The US and Australia’s cooperation in developing the Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island ups the ante in their effort to counter Beijing’s growing sway in the Pacific islands, a region comprising more than a dozen small nations strung over thousands of miles.

While the Pacific has traditionally been regarded as Australia’s diplomatic backyard, China has increasingly issued loans and initiated infrastructure projects in several nations.

Amid speculation that China was wooing Papua New Guinea and planning to build its own military base, Prime Minister Scott Morrison (picture) on Nov 1 said Australia was boosting its commitment to the region and would partner Papua New Guinea in redeveloping Lombrum.

The addition of the US shows the Trump administration’s comments “about a new, competitive policy toward China in the Indo-Pacific isn’t just rhetoric — it’s the real thing”, said an expert.

The US would also launch a US$400 million (RM1.68 billion) Indo-Pacific Transparency Initiative to “help empower the region’s citizens, combat corruption and strengthen sovereignty,” Pence said on Saturday.

The US is working with Japan to invest US$10 billion in the region’s energy infrastructure, as well as partnering Japan and Australia “to support a vast array of private development projects across the Indo Pacific”.