Papua New Guinea’s now-bare-bones Lombrum Naval Base, once a major allied staging point in the Pacific War against Japan, could be the crucial jigsaw piece that America’s strategic planners have been searching for as they try to push back against China’s rising assertions in regional waters.
But as Washington and Canberra forge ahead with plans to upgrade the facility – and potentially deploy assets there in the future – strategic observers say the two stalwart allies must tread carefully to avoid tripping up another country friendly to both: Indonesia.
For now there are no signs that the upgrade has set off alarms at the highest levels of President Joko Widodo’s government, but comments this week by one mid-level official suggest there may be pockets of anxiety.
Touching on the base plans, Abdul Kharis Almasyhari, chairman of a parliamentary commission with oversight of defence and security, was quoted by local media as saying foreign powers should not “militarise the Asia-Pacific”.
He urged the Widodo government to lobby against the formation of foreign naval bases in Papua New Guinea, adding that it would “increase political tensions” in the region.
The Lombrum facility, which rises out of thick jungle on Papua New Guinea’s Manus island, was already being upgraded by Australia before US Vice-President Mike Pence announced on November 17 that America was joining the effort.
The base will offer the US navy another transit point for refuelling, and could also prove vital for its maritime surveillance efforts as China’s navy projects further across the Pacific.
Analysts say Abdul Kharis’s comments are probably linked to latent concerns within the Indonesian establishment that a decades-old separatist movement in the state of Papua – bordering Papua New Guinea – could one day find help from outside powers.
Military-to-military ties between Australia and Indonesia have also at times been prickly over a range of issues, including Canberra’s hosting of US troops in Darwin.
“There is always that element of sensitivity about Papua,” said Evan Laksmana, an Indonesian military researcher from Jakarta’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “Just like how the US Marine base in Darwin became a thing a couple of years ago, they are afraid of giving the US and Australia the capability to potentially support Papuan independence.”
Australia’s plan to relocate its Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – the holy city also claimed by Palestinians as their capital – could also colour how Muslim-majority Indonesia views the base plan, some analysts said.
It remains to be seen if plans for the embassy move will have a “spillover perceptive effect on the Papua New Guinea base plan”, said Singapore-based naval researcher Collin Koh.
Australian analyst Anthony Bergin, meanwhile, said Indonesia’s fears could be compounded if the base was presented as part of an unadulterated “anti-China containment” strategy by Canberra and the US.
Instead, he said the two allied countries should invite Indonesian officers to be posted there, and “stress the benefits more generally of greater maritime surveillance”.
‘ALL ABOUT CHINA’
Still, the main strategic objective of probable allied deployment in the base – home today to Papua New Guinea’s 200-personnel-strong navy, which conducts fisheries surveillance – has to do with China.
The Lombrum base was built by the US in 1944, as allied forces were preparing a final assault on Japan. At the height of the war, the base is reported to have had multiple wharves, a 2.7km runway and accommodation for tens of thousands of marines. It played host to some 800 ships, fuel depots and a 3,000-bed hospital.
Manus Island, a tiny island about 30 per cent bigger than Hong Kong, had previously made headlines as it was the location of a now-closed offshore detention centre for asylum seekers that was run by Australia.
To Koh, from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, the heightened interest in the Western Pacific waters surrounding the island – traditionally seen as Australia’s sphere of influence – is “in no small part” fuelled by China’s growing assertiveness there.
The joint US-Australia upgrade of the Lombrum facility comes after months of speculation that there was Chinese interest in building a port there – sparking suspicion that Beijing was also eyeing a naval facility on Manus Island.
China Harbour Engineering in 2016 won a bid to develop the island’s Momote Airport, but neither Beijing nor the Papua New Guinea government have confirmed that the Chinese were in fact mulling the construction of a port facility.
Said Koh: “The base upgrade plan forms part of a recalibrated strategy adopted by Australia and its allies, not least the US, to reinvigorate its engagement with South Pacific island countries on multiple fronts – diplomatic, economic and security.”
In Australia, where concerns about China’s reach have particularly sharpened this year over questions about whether Beijing is covertly interfering in Canberra politics, some analysts view the Lombrum base as a direct answer to China’s militarisation of the disputed South China Sea.
“The Lombrum approach is simply applying to China what the PLA has done for itself in the South China Sea – it increases reach, creates more operational choices and complicates an adversary’s planning,” Peter Jennings of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute wrote in a commentary this month.
He said like Beijing’s “South China Sea strategy”, the Lombrum base needed the protection of air cover, and urged the conversion of Momote Airport into a dual-use military and civilian facility.
“Turning Momote Airport into a dual-use military and civilian facility (or indeed locating a new military-grade runway nearer to Lombrum) would start to make Manus a strategic game-changer as far north and west as the South China Sea,” Jennings wrote.
For now, analysts say the most important task ahead for the US and Australia is to calm nerves – be it in Papua New Guinea or in Indonesia – about the base.
There has been some discontent in the Pacific nation about the plan, with Manus Island governor Charlie Benjamin claiming it is unnecessary.
“To be honest Papua New Guinea is not at war and we do not need any help right now, simply [allowing Australia and America to come] to Lombrum is accommodating [their interests],” he was quoted as saying soon after Pence’s announcement.
Laksmana, the Indonesian researcher, said regional players including Indonesia need not get jumpy about the base just yet.
Major works requiring years of construction are probably needed for large US and Australian warships to begin berthing there.
The docking of US aircraft carriers – routine in modern maritime hubs such as Singapore and Hong Kong – will be also be untenable without massive upgrades to the Lombrum facility.
“The naval base … is just one component out of a few different others that the US is using to push back [against China],” he said. ■