Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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RINGED BY VERDANT hills, the harbor of Port Moresby has probably not seen such military buzz since the Second World War when it was bloodily defended by America and Australia against Japanese forces. The JS Izumo, the largest ship in the Japanese navy, visited the capital of Papua New Guinea (PNG) earlier this month, as did a British naval patrol vessel, HMS Tamar. A French one, La Glorieuse, was called earlier in the year. An American coastguard cutter is due next month.

On land, too, visiting dignitaries are tripping over each other. Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, flew in to host a regional forum in May. Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president, came in July. The most important caller of the year was meant to be the American president, Joe Biden, but he canceled the trip in May because of trouble back home over America’s debt ceiling. Instead, two senior lieutenants have come in close succession. Antony Blinken, the American secretary of state, signed a defense cooperation agreement with PNG in May. Lloyd Austin, the defense secretary, followed up on July 26th-27th. He was scarcely noticed, though. As Mr Austin stepped off his E4-B, a flying military command post, Port Moresby airport was bedecked with French flags and posters welcoming Emmanuel Macron, the French president, who arrived the next day.

In short, Port Moresby has again become a geopolitical prize, this time in the contest between America and China. “We are baffled,” says Winnie Kiap, former PNG diplomat, “It’s like watching two elephants playing on a patch of grass, and we are that patch.” In the second world war, she adds, “We were in a war that had nothing to do with us. This is a repetition of that kind of thinking.”

LNG in PNG

A poor and troubled country, PNG is regaining importance in the new geopolitical era. One reason is geography. PNG is close to Guam, America’s main military hub in the Pacific, and dominates the approaches to Australia, an ever more important American bastion. A second is PNG’s natural resources, not just gold, as in the past, but also minerals needed for the green revolution, such as nickel, used in batteries, and copper. Moreover, PNG is becoming a leading exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in cooperation with American and French oil firms. A third factor, notes Paul Barker of the Institute of National Affairs, a PNG think-tank, is the country’s role as a heavyweight of the Pacific Islands Forum, a grouping of 18 countries in Oceania.

Image source The economist

America has long regarded the Pacific as an American lake but left much of the diplomatic work to Australia (a former American president, George W. Bush, once badged it “the sheriff”). But China surprised both last year by signing a security pact with the Solomon Islands. The Biden administration responded with a whirlwind of visits, summits, diplomatic missions, and updated partnerships. America’s defense deal with PNG is a striking counter-move to China’s pact with PNG’s neighbor. It is also part of a thickening “latticework” of ad hoc American security and political agreements, large and small, stretching from Japan to Australia and India.

As Mr. Austin passed through PNG—where his father had served as an army lorry driver during the Second World War—Mr. Blinken was traveling to Tonga and New Zealand. Their trips culminated in Australia for the annual “AUSMIN” gathering of the countries’ foreign and defense ministers. They announced several measures to strengthen their “unbreakable alliance”, among them: upgrading military bases in northern Australia, increasing the presence of American forces who are rotated in and out of the country, establishing joint logistical hubs, tightening the alliance with Japan, cooperating in space and accelerating Australia’s production of missiles.

Many countries in the region do not want to choose between America and China. PNG’s prime minister, James Marape (pictured right, next to Mr Austin), professes to be a friend to all and an enemy of none. “We’re not about war. We’re about peace, tolerance, but, of course, promoting our values of democracy, Christianity, and living well with each other,” he said. His country needed to beef up its defense forces, and there was no better option than “the biggest democracy and the biggest military for this partnership”. The United States had been “invited in”, he insisted, and PNG’s forces would always be “at the gate”, i.e., would have the final say. The deal needs the approval of PNG’s Parliament.

Many details remain unclear. The United States will help build and upgrade military bases in places such as Lae and Manus island, and will gain “unimpeded” access to them, though Mr. Austin was careful to say “We’re not seeking permanent basing in PNG.” One step will be to improve the response to natural disasters in the region. Beyond that, however, officials will not say how far cooperation would involve actual military operations. Ultimately, America will be hoping that access to PNG would allow it to scatter its forces and logistics as it develops ways to fight in a “distributed” manner, thereby offering fewer easy targets for Chinese missiles.

Whether this is what Mr. Marape has in mind is a different matter. PNG ranks in the bottom third of the UN’s human development index, and fares similarly in the “corruption perceptions index” of Transparency International, an anti-corruption campaign group. Its internal transport links are poor, owing to its jungles, mountains, and islands. Its politics are complex, given its 800-plus languages. PNG has high levels of crime. It is dealing with a secessionist movement on the island of Bougainville (which voted overwhelmingly for independence in a referendum in 2019).

Mr. Marape made clear that he expects the 15-year defense pact to release a “cascade” of economic benefits. As for China, he said, it has “no issue whatsoever” with the defense pact, and it will continue to “rank number one” in trade and economic relations. The Global Times, an English-language mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party, demurred, citing Chinese experts who accuse America of “mafia-like moves in the South Pacific region by ganging up and forming small cliques”.

America’s subtle weaving of security partnerships in Asia has made striking progress. It falls short of the “Asian NATO” of China’s imagination. None of it guarantees that any country will help America in a future conflict with China. Still, America thinks the chances of rallying allies tomorrow are improved by building relationships today. In the meantime, they raise uncertainty for China, for it cannot be sure which countries will stay out of future war—or what might one day lurk in the jungles, havens, and airfields of Papua New Guinea.

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