It is difficult to find a strong, rational strategic argument for Australia’s to return to Lombrum Naval Base (or HMPNGS Tarangau) on Manus Island. Of course, not all of Defence’s activities have strictly military objectives or relate directly to the defence of Australia and in the Southwest Pacific Defence cooperation has been a major component of foreign policy and diplomacy. But even in that context an Australian naval presence at Manus Island makes little sense. The somewhat vague US decision to contribute to developing the base is even more obscure.
On the upgrade of the base, the Prime Minister has said, ‘It’s an important part of the strategic set of arrangements we have in place in our region, I think it’s fairly obvious’. Although he has also been at pains to point out that PNG is leading on this joint initiative, the aims of which seem in reality to be more modest. The joint PNG/Australia statement emphasised the project would ‘further enhance interoperability between our defence forces, and deepen our maritime security cooperation’ and might facilitate ‘increased Australian ship visits over time’. Not exactly a dramatic geostrategic development.
To at least one observer, however, this, ‘brings the US a lot closer to the South China Sea’ and is ‘a significant pushback for China’s strategic ambitions in the Pacific region’. This is an overblown assessment. Both Scott Morrison and Vice President Mike Pence were far more reticent about their joint level of commitment to home porting or transiting forces through Manus.
Upgrading Lombrum is a sensible idea. The base is presently home to the PNGDF’s Pacific-class patrol boat force and will also homeport the replacement Guardian class under the Pacific Maritime Security Program. The Defence Minister announced in September that as part of the replacement patrol boat program Australia had committed to a $5 million ‘upgrade of wharf and shore-based infrastructure’ in advance of the new vessels being gifted to PNG.
The Southwest Pacific Island nations, including PNG and Timor Leste, face huge challenges policing their Exclusive Economic Zones and battling illegal fishing, drug smuggling and other criminal activity. The package of assistance provided through the Defence Cooperation program, in partnership with other security, law enforcement and intelligence agencies, is highly valued by the regional governments. The cooperative structures and personal relationships developed over time have been mutually beneficial and has been a key part of Australia’s foreign policy.
Except for the sudden inclusion of the US as a player in the Lombrum project, this has all the hallmarks of unspectacular business as usual. The Australian public is not unfamiliar with politicians repackaging or re-announcing something already in progress. Yet the context of the tense stand-off in the South China Sea between the US and China, and Australian anxiety about Chinese encroachment into the Western Pacific, tinges everything with a bit of paranoia and raises the mundane to the heights of strategic importance.
The normal strategic, as distinct from other, considerations relating to investing in a naval base for Australian use would include identifying the missions that Australia expects to conduct from that location and which existing or planned RAN vessels might be suitable to operate from there.
Perhaps the RAN’s new Offshore Patrol Vessels (Project SEA 1180) planned to begin entering service late-2021 will visit Lombrum during transits. Yet, as the new OPV’s are intended to ‘to contribute to border security operations’ according to the White Paper, its not clear how often they would be off in the Admiralty Islands.
The 7000 tonne Hobart class air warfare destroyers might pass Manus Island on return from the South China Sea but as there are only three of them that wouldn’t be very frequent. It is not apparent how often or why the ANZAC frigates on operations, or after 2030 their replacements, might wander into the Bismarck Sea. Even if these platforms did visit regularly, Lombrum is not going to be able to provide replenishment or repairs for sophisticated naval platforms.
The hyped announcements around the Manus base have simply been provocative; providing an opportunity for the Vice President to leverage off an existing Australian funded project for anti-China rhetoric. While Lombrum is important for PNG it has no geostrategic importance. Certainly not in the context of the strategic environment of the Asia-Pacific region. It is too far from East Asia and the South China Sea, or Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. It will never have the infrastructure or be able to provide the services and logistics of a forward operating base for Australia fighting vessels. It is inconceivable, given the range of better alternative options available, the US would ever invest heavily in Lombrum or operate from there. It is hard to see how what is proposed or likely for Manus would have an impact in anyway on Chinese objectives or behaviours.
What the episode does demonstrate, however, is how, when little strategic justification is provided by the government for Defence expenditure, the message can become distorted and confused. This leaves enormous space for other narratives.
Bloomberg’s headline was, ‘U.S., Australia to Develop Pacific Naval Base in Check on China’. The Guardian interpreted the move as ‘telegraphing a strategic commitment to the region at a time of concern about rising Chinese influence’ which will ‘which will host more warships in the Pacific’. The Financial Review declared the joint project, ‘dramatically ramping up the American presence in the South Pacific in a check on Chinese ambitions to expand its strategic influence’. The Russian media outlet Sputnik News announced, ‘Australia will let its warships make port visits to Papua New Guinea’s base on Manus Island’. It is none of those things.
Australia’s strategic policy, seen from outside government, seems a shambles, and if not really chaotic and incoherent, then poorly communicated.
Mike Scrafton is a former senior Defence executive, former CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.