Australian Defence ‘scoping visit’ to Manus navy base

CANBERRA, 24 OCTOBER 2018 (AAP) – Australian Defence officials have been deployed on a “scoping visit” to Manus Island as Australia and Papua New Guinea work on plans to develop a joint naval base.

Department of Defence officers were sent to survey the Lombrum base between August 28 and 30, after PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill expressed interest in working with Australia to redevelop the site as a joint facility.

Appearing before a Senate estimates hearing in Canberra on Wednesday, Defence secretary Greg Moriarty said Australia would likely shoulder most of the costs.

“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.”

The naval base is considered a potential strategic asset as Australia tries to contain China’s growing military influence in the Pacific.

Australia is already spending $5 million (US$3.5 million) to upgrade a wharf at the facility as it prepares to “gift” PNG four patrol boats.

The government expects to spend $40 million (US$28 million) on Defence projects in PNG this financial year.

International policy officer Hugh Jeffrey said discussions about the naval base upgrades were ongoing, and a final decision would be made at a prime ministerial level.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne told the committee she met with  O’Neill and various PNG cabinet ministers two weeks ago.

Asked several times whether the Lombrum naval base was discussed, Senator Payne replied wryly: “We discussed a broad range of issues.”

Labor senator Penny Wong asked Chief of Defence Force Angus Campbell whether an announcement on the base would be made at an APEC summit in PNG next month.

General Campbell said it was a matter for government.

“So that’s a yes,” Senator Wong replied.