Australia could lose access to the vital deepwater Lombrum naval base situated in Papua New Guinea (PNG). The naval base is strategically located and allows to serve as a staging point for Australian and American Navy as they try to counter rising Chinese presence in the region.
If the deal gets revoked, it could provide China with an opportunity to have its own base in the region, an asset that Beijing desires to have.
The PNG government has announced that it would review the deal signed with Australia to develop the Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island. Canberra, along with Washington had signed the agreement at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in 2018.
As part of the deal, Australia and the United States would get access to the naval base in return for its development. The first phase of the expanded naval base at Lombrum on Manus Island was inaugurated by Australian defence minister Linda Reynolds in 2019.
However, the government in Port Moresby now claims that Australia has failed to deliver on its promises. Speaking at the Parliament, Manus Governor Charlie Benjamin said that his people have been treated in contempt in relation to the agreement signed in 2018.
In addition to the development of the base, Canberra had promised to develop schools, highways, hospitals etc but these promises have not been fulfilled. He said that local construction companies are being denied opportunities because none of the local companies have Australian-filed tax numbers.
Patrick Pruaitch, the member of Parliament of PNG who ordered the review for the deal, accuses the former government to have mishandled the agreement. According to the minister, the Department of Foreign Affairs had been left out of negotiations, as well as the signing.
According to experts at EurAsian Times, if the deal is revoked by PNG, it would land a blow to the joint Australian-American operations in the Pacific ocean.
Australia has been an all-weather ally for most countries in the Pacific region. Their proximity to countries like Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands etc and ability to financially assist them have helped the ‘Kangaroos’ maintain a sphere of influence in the region.
The annulment of the deal also creates a window of opportunity for China. For decades, Beijing has won allies in the region and aspired to develop a military base in the region. Not only can China possibly win a strategic Australian ally in the region, but it could also fulfil its dream of having an overseas military base in the Pacific.
The Chinese almost secured a deal for ports in PNG earlier, however, the deal fell through at the last minute. Experts say that in a post coronavirus world with devastated economies, PNG will be eager for aid and assistance and there is a possibility that they could turn to China for help.
For Australia, this is a new headache in an ever-escalating turmoil with China. Sino-Australian relations have been at an all-time low and the possibility of a military base in PNG would definitely send shockwaves through Australia. Separated by a distance of just five kilometres, Australia cannot afford to lose PNG as an ally.
Penned by- Armaan Srivastava