Australian soldiers prepare to deploy to Papua New Guinea amid growing fears about China’s influence

A senior Defence official said Australia was refocusing on PNG after the long Afghanistan war. (ADF: Sergeant Rob Nyffenegger)

CANBERRA, (ABC) – Australian soldiers could soon begin regular military rotations to Papua New Guinea as anxiety over China’s growing influence in the Pacific region continues to rise.

The ABC has learned planning for short-term troop deployments to the former Australian territory is well advanced, similar to the current army training rotations at Malaysia’s Butterworth Air Force base.

About 30 Australian army officers are already embedded with the PNG Defence Force (PNGDF), but that number is down significantly on past decades.

A senior Defence department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Australia had “taken its eye off” PNG during the long Afghanistan war but was now “refocusing on its close neighbour”.

Defence Minister Christopher Pyne has stopped short of confirming troop rotations are imminent but has flagged a greater Australian military presence in PNG.

“The Australian Government is in frequent contact with the PNG Government regarding their development priorities,” Pyne said in a statement.

“Australia looks forward to continuing to work with the PNG Government on its ambitions as part of our ongoing commitment to security and stability in the Pacific,” he said.

Last week the ABC revealed Australian Special Forces soldiers had been deployed to PNG to help secure the capital Port Moresby ahead of November’s meeting of APEC world leaders.

On Thursday Prime Minister Scott Morrison also refused to deny a report in The Australian newspaper that his government was planning to help build a new joint naval base at PNG’s Manus Island.

“The Pacific is a very high-priority area of strategic national security interest for Australia,” Morrison told Channel Seven.

“But I’m not going to comment on speculation on national security issues, that would not be appropriate,” he added.

The Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island, which the Australian Defence Force ran for 25 years until PNG gained independence in 1975, would be capable of hosting Australian and American warships.

Neil James from the Australia Defence Association said refocusing on PNG makes strategic sense.

“It’s always been in the advantage of both countries, we have very close foreign affairs and defence relations and this is just part of how things are changing as China expands its interests more into the Pacific,” he said.

“A large part of the engagement with Papua New Guinea has always been army-to-army, rather than air-force-to-air-force and navy-to-navy because the PNGDF has such small maritime and aviation components,” he said.

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