Australia to build military base in PNG

CANBERRA, 25 OCTOBER 2018 (THE FINANCIAL REVIEW) – Defence officials confirmed Australia would pay the bulk of the cost of building a military base in Papua New Guinea, and that the Navy has ramped up the tempo of its operations in the contested waters of the South China Sea.

The Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Mike Noonan, told a Senate estimates hearing on Wednesday that Australian ships were “regularly” in the area and being challenged by Chinese ships over the radio about their presence, including the HMAS Melbourne when it sailed through the Taiwan Strait earlier this month to South Korea following a Chinese port visit.

Vice Admiral Noonan said Australian warships replied they were conducting innocent passage in international waters in accordance with international law.

“We’ve not seen any aggressive language. It is always very courteous and typically they thank us,” he said.

Last month, a US frigate came within 40 metres of colliding with a Chinese warship during a freedom of navigation exercise in the disputed Spratly Islands.

Unlike the US, Australia is yet to conduct a freedom of navigation exercise that sails within 12 nautical miles of a disputed territory claimed by China but nevertheless Vice Admiral Noonan said there was an “increasing presence” of Australian warships in the South China Sea.

Figures released to the committee revealed the Navy deployed five ships to the region for a total of 43 days in 2014, rising to eight ships for 254 days last year. This year, eight ships have spent 60 days in the South China Sea.

“We are more present in engaging with partners throughout the region in an area which transits one-third of the global shipping traffic and is the natural route between Australia and our large trading partners,” Chief of Defence Force Angus Campbell said.

Defence Department secretary Greg Moriarty told the committee Australian officials had visited Manus Island in August for several days to undertake a scoping study to make the Lombrum naval base a joint facility at the invitation of PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill.

“My expectation is that should the Australian government agree to something like that, we would take the lion’s share of the funding,” Moriarty told the committee.

“But PNG would make a contribution, as they do already, to the maintenance and sustainment of that base.”

A Manus Island base would be strategically located, with Australia looking to check China’s attempts to build influence in the South Pacific. The government has already committed $5 million (US$3.8 million) to upgrade a wharf at the base ahead of the delivery of Pacific Patrol Boats Australia is gifting PNG.

Military chiefs also revealed they were only told about the Morrison government’s review of Israel policy, including the sensitive question of relocating the Australian embassy to Jerusalem the evening before the announcement on October 16.

But field commanders were only told on the morning of October 16 – after the announcement of review had been published by newspapers – to review force protection for Australian personnel on operations including those in the Middle East.

Asked by Labor frontbencher Penny Wong whether he would have preferred if field commanders had been told about significant foreign policy shifts before the media, Gen Campbell paused for 10 seconds before replying “Yes senator”.

Gen Campbell said existing force protection measures “proved to be very adequate for that additional consideration”.

“I am comfortable that they remained at all times safe and measures in place were appropriate,” he said.

Amid global outrage at Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the Defence Department said a defence memorandum of understanding with Riyadh was not a priority.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said “all options were on the table” when asked by Greens leader Richard Di Natale whether arms sales to the kingdom would be suspended.

She said she had spoken to the Saudi ambassador to convey Australia’s concerns overKhashoggi’s death but stressed the she did not want to pre-judge the outcome of investigations.

More Stories