We need to work harder to be Pacific’s No 1 partner: Labor

Photo: RNZ

CANBERRA, 29 AUGUST 2018 (THE AUSTRALIAN) – Australia, rather than China, should be the “partner of choice” for a proposed port redevelopment in Papua New Guinea that officials believe Beijing may finance, Labor says.

PNG Department of Transport official Charles Siniu had confirmed his government may ask China to co-finance four port upgrades on Wewak, Kikori, Vanimo and Manus Island. Manus was the site of a crucial US naval base at Lombrum during WWII.

Siniu said he understood the plan had been discussed by Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and National Planning Minister Richard Maru during a June visit to China.

New Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Monday that she expected to attend an APEC meeting in PNG in November to emphasise that Australia was the leading strategic partner for Pacific island nations.

“Prime Minister Morrison — potentially I will also be there — we’ll be part of that engagement, really reinforcing Australia’s position as the security partner of choice in the Pacific,” she said.

Labor defence spokesman Richard Marles said it appeared Australia was not the partner of choice for the port project.

“Australia needs to work harder to make sure we’re the partner of choice for countries in the Pacific, especially for projects like this one,” he said.

“Manus has been a strategic deepwater port since the Second World War. I’d like to think the government would be working hard to be the partner of choice on this project.”

Lowy Institute’ senior fellow Euan Graham said any move by China to fund ports in PNG would be strategic.

“China’s Pacific ‘facility’ whack-a-mole game continues. This looks like strategic intent to me,” he said. “Manus is arguably better situated as a basing location from China’s point of view compared with Vanuatu or other more isolated Pacific islands.”

There is no suggestion the Chinese navy will have involvement in the project or a presence on Manus Island.

In her final press conference as foreign minister, Julie Bishop said future governments should direct a “significant” amount of aid to the Pacific.

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