Vice-President Mike Pence has announced the US will partner with Australia and Papua New Guinea to redevelop the Manus Island naval base amid rising anxiety about China’s power in the region.
Last month Australia and Papua New Guinea announced both countries would upgrade the dilapidated Lombrum base in PNG, which has a strategically vital position overlooking key trade routes.
Defence Minister Christopher Pyne said this week Australian vessels would probably be based permanently at Lombrum under the deal.
And during a speech to business leaders ahead of the APEC summit in Port Moresby officially kicking off, Mr Pence announced the US would also join the project.
“We will work with these nations to protect the sovereignty and maritime routes of Pacific Island nations,” he said on Saturday.
The scale of the US commitment is not yet clear, as Mr Pence did not say how much money the Trump administration would contribute to the project or whether US vessels would be permanently based at Lombrum.
But the announcement is likely to stir tensions with Beijing. Chinese and US vessels have come close to confrontation in the disputed South China Sea and Beijing has accused the Trump administration of trying to contain its rise in Asia.
The planned base redevelopment has also stirred some opposition on Manus, with some locals accusing the PNG Government of bulldozing the project through.
The geopolitical tensions between the US and China were on clear display during the speeches given by Mr Pence and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who addressed the same forum just before the Vice-President.
China has been steadily building its influence in the Pacific, but Mr Pence again accused Beijing of using debt-trap diplomacy to coerce small nations.
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He made a direct plea to countries in the region to turn their back on China and stick with the United States.
“Do not accept debt that could compromise your sovereignty. Protect your interests,” he said.
“Know that the United States offers a better option. We don’t drown our partners in a sea of debt, we don’t coerce or compromise your independence, we deal openly and fairly.”
But Mr Xi rejected the US position.
“No-one has the power to stop people from seeking a better life. We should strengthen development cooperation,” he said.
And he warned against the escalation of trade and military tensions, saying a “hot, cold or trade [war]” could spell catastrophe.
“Mankind has once against reached a crossroad,” he said.
“Which direction should we choose? Cooperation or confrontation, openness or closing one’s door?”