We can’t risk a strategic sham on Manus
28 Nov 2018|

Much has been written recently about the decision to redevelop the naval base at Lombrum on Manus Island. Initially it was to be a joint Australia–PNG facility, but American vice president Mike Pence has announced that the US will partner with Australia and PNG on the redevelopment project.

Anthony Bergin started ASPI’s commentary ball rolling. He stressed the value of Australia working with PNG to develop port facilities on Manus, and noted that the site’s strategic location could enable us to monitor a large part of the Pacific and control access to Australia through the archipelagic arc to our north and northeast.

James Goldrick provided a useful history of the naval facility on Manus. While strategic circumstances today are different from those of earlier times, the basic geostrategic potential of Manus hasn’t changed. It is well positioned to be not only an advanced base for the defence of PNG and Australia, but also a springboard into the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

Peter Jennings in a recent post highlighted the higher level strategic potential of the base for countering Chinese influence in the Pacific. This he saw as a more valuable contribution than just supporting the fisheries surveillance and other policing tasks run out of Lombrum in the past.

Importantly, he identified Momote Airport on Manus as a critical part of the strategic equation. Momote will be an essential element of the joint facility at Manus. Its ability to support long-range maritime surveillance and air patrols will likely be a major part of American interest in Manus.

These posts have all made good points about Manus, but some key issues have been overlooked.

First, there’s the importance of involving the local Manus islanders. Australia’s refugee centre was essentially dumped on them, and although they later benefited from it with jobs and development, there was still resistance to it, particularly when the refugees were released into the community. The closure of the facility has now created an employment and economic vacuum that the redeveloped naval base will help to fill.

It’s extremely important that the Manus community be consulted fully during the development process. As Charlie Benjamin, governor of Manus Province, said, ‘On behalf of the people and government of Manus, I say Manus will not be used again by the governments of PNG and Australia to further pursue the interest of Australia without first engaging meaningfully with the people and government of Manus.’ A former MP for Manus, Ronnie Knight, expressed concerns that so far there has been no discussion with any locals, and there were risks that the base deal could replicate the same governance issues that arose during the development and operation of the Manus Island detention centre.

In the days when the Lombrum base was HMAS Tarangau, a commissioned RAN shore establishment, it enjoyed excellent relations with local people. The naval hospital was the best medical facility in the Admiralty Islands and local villages were contracted to supply the base with fresh fruit and vegetables. An insight into life at Tarangau is available on recently released naval history podcasts covering the RAN in PNG prior to independence.

Second, the most fundamental requirement is a refuelling facility. The oil fuel installation at Tarangau was a major strategic asset for the Royal Australian Navy. It was used regularly by RAN ships deploying from Sydney to Southeast Asia, which was particularly important during Confrontation (or Konfrontasi), when vessels weren’t able to conveniently go through the Indonesian archipelago.

The situation is no different today. The most vital role of the joint base will be to provide fuel for ships transiting through the area or operating out of the base, but the former RAN facility no longer exists. The PNG patrol boats based at Lombrum can’t fuel there and have to go elsewhere, usually to either Madang or Rabaul, to refuel before heading out on patrol. Air operations out of Momote will also require a substantial refuelling facility to be built.

Third, we need an accurate appreciation of the strategic location of Manus. Some of the commentary has been wide of the mark, with overambitious assessments linking the island’s strategic value to the situation in the South China Sea, or even to policing the Sulu and Celebes seas.

Lombrum is too far from these areas to have any worthwhile effect, and besides the Americans already have their extensive facilities on Guam closer to these ‘hot spots’. Its real strategic value will lie in its forward position to monitor and control air and sea activities in the archipelagic approaches to Australia and the wide sweep of the Pacific from across Micronesia to Kiribati, Nauru and Solomon Islands.

Finally, and most importantly, there’s the issue of cost. The facilities at Lombrum have deteriorated over many years due to inadequate maintenance and funding. The base is remote, nearly 500 nautical miles by air from Port Moresby and almost 1,000 nautical miles by sea. Construction of new facilities will be enormously expensive, as will be ongoing support and maintenance. The $5 million already allocated to upgrade the Lombrum wharf to receive the Guardian-class patrol boats will cover only a basic refurbishment. Ideally, the joint base will also require a wharf, as it had in the past, for warships of destroyer size.

An oil fuel installation is essential, and accommodation, medical and recreational facilities will also be required. The extensive housing and other amenities built at Lombrum for RAN personnel in the 1960s and ’70s have mostly fallen into disrepair and will require refurbishment or replacement. American and Australian staffing of the base should not be on a ‘fly in, fly out’ basis. Personnel will need to reside there, which will help ensure better engagement with the local community.

Chinese contractors are already upgrading Momote airfield at a cost of $30 million in a project funded by the Asian Development Bank. It will require further work to accommodate American and Australian surveillance and fighter aircraft, as well as a large fuel installation and other support facilities.

Cash-strapped PNG won’t be able to contribute to the costs of the joint facilities on Manus. However, constructive involvement with the local community could provide in-kind contributions and cost savings.

A Lombrum base potentially has useful strategic purposes, but it will be important that all joint partners fully commit to its development. A half-baked base, lacking essential facilities, will be no base at all. It would only be seen as a strategic sham.