Manus naval base – the best laid plans of imperialist mice and men…..
Written by: (Contributed) on 21 July 2020
(Above: PNG newspaper photo from 2019 aimed at former PM O'Neill)
Problems have arisen with the upgrade of the US-led military plan for Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island which were to be front-line facilities for regional operations.
Diplomatic officials from Canberra and Washington did not follow appropriate and accepted procedures during the initial stages of implementing the military planning. Their behaviour, correspondingly, has revealed a callous indifference and disrespect toward the peoples of Papua New Guinea.
In mid-July a statement from the Governor of Manus Island, Charlie Benjamin, backed by the Limondorol ethnic group, announced they were blocking the proposed upgrade of Lombrum Naval Base. The surrounding area is regarded as their customary land, and they were not consulted about the US-led military planning. (1) The statement was timed to coincide with the start of construction work at the site. The fact that local firms were excluded from the tender process had added to the opposition to the project.
The announcement met with noted diplomatic silence from both Australia and the US; a reference was eventually forthcoming whereby the Trump administration urged the Morrison coalition government in Canberra to 'quickly resolve the matter'. (2)
The US-led military plan for the Lombrum facilities was originally announced in November, 2018, by vice-president Mike Pence as part of the 'Pacific step-up' to counter China at an APEC Summit in Port Moresby. (3) In his speech to the regional trade forum Pence stated the US would partner Australia with the planned $175 million upgrade, to enable the facilities to 'provide great advantage in both offence and defence in wartime' and 'sea-lines of communication (SLOC)'. (4)
Manus Island was regarded as strategically important for facing the open seas to offer multiple lines for military operations, and 'positional military advantage could be leveraged to support operations in the western Pacific'. (5) It also has deep-water channels, to accommodate larger-size naval vessels. Reference was also made at the time to the nearby Momote air-field which would provide 'additional lines of operation'. (6)
The fact the Trump administration has appointed an ambassador specifically for PNG has revealed the importance attached to the Lombrum Naval Base initiative. The US, historically, always used diplomatic personnel based in Canberra for duties in the South Pacific.
No doubt the Manus Islanders would like to be flies on the wall when Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds fly to Washington for annual talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper. So too, for that matter, would many Australians sick to death of Australian servility to the US overlords.
Strategic importance of Manus Island
US-led military planning for the Lombrum facilities has been based on a strategic triangle with the arc from Brisbane to Guam and the Philippines. (7) The triangular relationship also fits inside the second and third layers of island chains (see diagram). Military facilities near Brisbane are already used for the recently established Australian Defence Force (ADF) Pacific Support Team as part of the Army's 1st Division. (8) Guam is a major US military facility in Micronesia. The Philippines, likewise, has had long-standing US military commitments; in recent times a number of sensitive US military facilities have been reactivated at:
Basa Air-base, Pampagna,
Antonio Bautista Air-base, Palawan,
Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija,
Lumbia Air-base, Cagayan de Oro City,
Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air-base, Cebu City. (9)
Manus Island is strategically situated approximately mid-way on a straight-line between the ADF military facilities in Brisbane and their US counterparts based in Guam using a standard actual-size regional map. It is, therefore, revealing to note the US-led military plan to develop the Lombrum facilities was taken on the basis that 'Manus … was … safer than Guam from enemy attacks', leaving little to the imagination about the nature of the extensive plan. (10) It is, furthermore, also important to note opposition to the planned upgrade by local people on Manus Island was because 'the base could become a major military outpost like that in Okinawa, Japan'. (11) It was not idle speculation but a realistic consideration.
Behind the scenes of the major stand-off between local people on Manus Island and the US war-machine lies a very important factor which would appear to have been overlooked by decision-makers in Canberra and Washington; PNG has two legal and political systems. The Australian colonial administration and British Commonwealth established a full Westminster-model of parliamentary democracy in Port Moresby prior to independence in the mid-1970s. The model constitution, however, rested upon older traditional Melanesian law, practised by ethnic groups for thousands of years through democratic processes of consultation and discussion amongst collective peoples with decision-making by tribal elders. Their custodianship of lands and property was regarded as the basis of their entire legal and political system.
Military and government officials in both Canberra and Washington, it should be noted, did not even bother to consider Melanesian law when planning the Lombrum upgrade, revealing a total disrespect for the peoples of PNG in a manner reminiscent of neo-colonial control of another country. The fact the US-led military planning has appeared to have placed the peoples of Manus Island and PNG in the front-line of real-war scenarios without even bothering to consult with local people is a disgrace.
With this type of diplomacy taking place in the name of Australian values:
We need an independent foreign policy!
NOTE: Messages of support for Governor Charlie Benjamin and the Limondorol people should be forwarded / emailed to the PNG High Commission, Canberra: kunducbr@ hotkey.net.au
1. Manus clan threatens naval base deal, Australian, 17 July 2020.
3. Australia must take threat, The Strategist, ASPI., 15 June 2020.
4. The Strategic Significance of Manus Island for the US Navy, The US Naval Institute, December 2018; and, Joint Initiative at Lombrum Naval Base, Defence Strategic Policy and Intelligence Group, Department of Defence, Australia.
5. Ibid., The Strategic Significance of Manus Island for the US Navy.
8. ADF could open doors to Pacific military elites, Australian, 22 October 2019.
9. Tightening Philippine military involvement with the US, The Philippine Star, 5 May 2018.
10. Strategic Significance of Manus Island, op.cit., December 2018.
11. Australian, op.cit., 17 July 2020.
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