Readers will be aware that I have been advocating for a greater United States presence in the Pacific as the challenge presented by the Peoples Republic of China continues to grow.
Sadly, under the Trump Administration it was all talk – and not much else! About the only positive move was for the US to play a relatively minor role in the upgrading of the naval base on Manus Island. The bulk of the cost and activity is being carried by Australia.
However, there are some very positive signs that the Biden Administration appreciates the enormity of the challenge Australia, and our region, faces, as China unrelentingly seeks to expand its influence (and more than influence) in Papua New Guinea and right across the Pacific.
The appointment of Kurt Campbell as the administration’s “Indo-Pacific Co-ordinator” (a new role) was an outstanding start. Campbell has vast experience in the region and is highly regarded in the Australian Government and Parliament.
His senior role within the State Department, with access to the White House, was widely welcomed when it was announced. He has not disappointed since.
The most recent evidence of his influence came when President Biden delivered a video presentation to the Pacific Island Forum Leaders meeting recently. He did so at the invitation of the incoming Forum Chairman – the Prime Minister of Fiji.
Unsurprisingly the President spoke about the US response to the pandemic, and climate change. The smaller island members of the Forum have the impact of climate change as their number one priority and his contribution was welcomed widely. The Fiji Prime Minister, and several other leaders, have challenged Scott Morrison on the issue, as they have been doing for some years.
Putting the climate change issue aside the mere fact that the US President made a presentation to the Forum is noteworthy. He is the first US President to have done so.
I sense – and various sources agree – that at long last the United States is going to significantly lift its game in our region. It has been a long time coming.
I still recall accompanying the then PNG Deputy Prime Minister, the late Sir Iambakey Okuk, on a visit to the United States in 1980. Our visit was co-ordinated by the US Embassy in PNG and the State Department.
We spent some time at the US Capitol where our host was the distinguished US Democrat Senator, John Glenn. He introduced is to Senators and Members across the political divide including the relatively young Senator from Delaware, Joe Biden!
Over lunch Senator Glenn offered the view that the United States needed to lift its real presence in Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific. He offered the perceptive view forty years ago that Papua New Guinea, and island nations such as The Solomon Islands and Vanuatu were strategically placed and would be targets if an unfriendly power (and he suggested China could be in time) had expansionist ambitions.
Sadly not much has happened since then!
But there are promising signs beyond President Biden’s presentation to the Forum.
The first came recently when the President nominated a former Senate colleague, Tom Udall, to be the next US Ambassador to New Zealand. The appointment of a senior Democrat to this position sent a strong signal that the US is increasingly its diplomatic and wider presence.
But we are almost certainly about to get an even stronger signal.
It has been widely reported, and not at all denied, that the next United States Ambassador to Australia will be Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of President John F Kennedy. Caroline Kennedy is just not Democrat Party “royalty” she is United States “royalty” as well.
Her last public office was a very senior one – US Ambassador to Japan during the Obama Administration.
It has been widely reported that the President will submit her name to the Senate for approval soon. The sooner the better!
As I have often written Australia has to do much more to help counter the growing PRC influence in Papua New Guinea and across the South Pacific, and the wider Pacific.
But we cannot do it alone. Sadly, we cannot rely on New Zealand for much assistance, not under the current NZ Government.
There are signs that Japan is going to lift its role. Japan has been a significant contributor to the region through its international aid entity, JICA. That it is clearly planning to do more is timely.
But Australia really needs to partner with the United States if we are to effectively counter China’s Belt and Road initiatives, and accompanying “debt trap diplomacy”.
The United States could assist our island neighbours monitor fishing in their waters (much of its unchecked and illegal) as well as detect drug trafficking and illegal people movement. While the US priority will be Central and North Pacific because of the proximity to Hawaii and the US West Coast we need the US to play a more active role in our strategic region – Papua New Guinea, The Solomon Islands and Timor Leste in particular.
But the US will also be interested in Samoa, given its proximity to American Samoa, and that has to be welcomed given the refreshing signs emerging from the new Government of Samoa.
There is one issue closer to Australia which we should seriously enlist support from the United States to address.
I remain concerned, if not alarmed, that the PNG community closest to Australia, Daru, remains a serious and significant target by companies directly linked to the Peoples Republic of China Government, encouraged by the PRC Embassy in Port Moresby.
Australia’s response to my contributions and those of others including Guardian reporters about China’s interest in Daru has just not been good enough.
What must happen is that Australia, in consultation with the PNG Government, must move immediately to address the social welfare and community service needs of the long suffering people of Daru. Daru needs a proper sewerage system. A reliable water support, and affordable electricity.
It also needs to help provide economic opportunity for the people of Daru, and the whole Western Province which is strategically located beside the Indonesian province of Papua, as well as of course the islands of the Torres Strait and Northern Australia.
Given the urgency of the task – and the challenge China presents – why not engage the United States to assist?
The population of Daru is around 50,000. They interchange with Australian citizens living on the islands of the Torres Strait – even though the pandemic has restricted movements.
Even though they live just a few km from the nearest island in the Torres Strait, their living standards and economic opportunity are massively inferior to those of the people of the Torres Strait. And that includes health services and school education.
That reality makes Daru’s local and provincial leaders unsurprisingly susceptible to grandiose proposals from China – running into billions.
Australia simply has to lead the response, which must include the development of a more efficient and significant local fishing industry and fish processing facility.
The clear sign that the United States is going to lift its contribution to countering China’s influence is to be welcomed, and encouraged.
Australia’s immediate task, apart from encouraging it, is to work with the US and its agencies in identifying projects that can make an early impact.
Delivering real opportunity to our good neighbours is surely a sound beginning?
This article first appeared in On Line Opinion and was used with permission.
Jeffrey Wall CSM CBE is an Australian political consultant and has served as an advisor to the PNG Foreign Minister, Sir Rabbie Namaliu – Prime Minister 1988-1992 and Speaker 1994-1997.