Base motives: Manus Island and Chinese containment

Attempts to push back Chinese influence in the Pacific have concerning historical parallels

Daniel Fazio

International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific

27 November 2018

The decision by American and Australian policymakers to jointly develop a naval base on Manus Island reflect different interests in Canberra and Washington, Daniel Fazio writes.

One of the more notable outcomes from the recent APEC summit in Port Moresby was the announcement of a joint American-Australian-Papua New Guinean upgrade of the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island – by all accounts to contain China’s influence in the region.

Although the announcement of this proposed facility emphasised it will be an American, Australian and Papua New Guinean joint enterprise, in reality, it will be the level of American commitment that will determine whether this base will be an operational facility.

Only the US has the resources and force projection capability to make Manus a viable deterrent to Chinese expansion into the region. Whether the US has the will to make this commitment remains to be seen. Without the US, Australia and PNG are unlikely to act.

This proposal again makes Manus Island a focal point of Australian and American foreign and defence policy.

Possessing a large natural harbour, Manus was an important base for the American and Australian Southwest Pacific campaign against the Japanese in World War Two. However, in 1945-46, diverging Australian and American interests created tension between the two nations over Manus.

More on this: NatSec Pod: Unpacking the APEC powerplays

Although Japan had been defeated, the Chifley government (notably Minister for External Affairs, Herbert Evatt) was determined to keep the US engaged in the region to best ensure Australia’s security against a future Japanese resurgence.

At the time, Washington’s strategic priority was Europe. Its concerns in Asia were centred on rebuilding Japan, which was then under occupation by American and allied forces including Australians, and preventing a Communist victory in the Chinese civil war.

Southeast Asia was a diminishing American strategic priority. While Australia wanted the US to maintain its base on Manus, the Americans imposed conditions that were unacceptable to Australia. The US wanted Australia to bear the entire cost of maintaining the base but the Americans would have unilateral control of the facility.

In the end, Canberra and Washington were unable to reach an agreement over the status of Manus and so the US withdrew.

It was the rapid chain of events in the 12-month period in 1949-50 – the Communist victory in China in October 1949, the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 and the Communist Chinese intervention in Korea in November 1950 – that coincided with a re-evaluation of the US Pacific strategy to contain communism in the region.

In 1951, John Foster Dulles, a senior Republican foreign policy expert working for the Truman Administration, created the American-led island chain defence perimeter. Australia was now an important link in this regional security arrangement. Dulles negotiated a ‘soft’ peace treaty with Japan to ensure it remained in the American orbit. Dulles also negotiated the ANZUS Treaty with Australia and New Zealand and defence treaties with the Philippines and Japan. Defence treaties with South Korea and Taiwan followed later.

More on this: Peering behind the curtain of the US-Australia alliance

The Australian-American relationship had evolved considerably by March 1962. Overlapping geo-strategic interests resulted in the American and Australian agreement to establish a satellite tracking station on Manus Island.

From 1949-51, the emergence of China was the catalyst for America’s re-evaluation of its Asia-Pacific strategy.

In 2018, it is an increasingly assertive China that is the focus of American and Australian concerns.

History does not repeat, but the present US and Australian response to Chinese posturing has parallels with 1949-51. Similar to 1945-46, it will be some time before the level and nature of the American, Australian and Papua New Guinean commitment of resources and personnel deployments on Manus will be clear.

The US may consider a base on Manus to be a strong strategic counterweight to Chinese militarisation of artificial islands in the South China Sea, assertiveness in the East China Sea, and growing regional influence.

The dilemma for the US is that if it does not follow Vice President Mike Pence’s challenging rhetoric to China at the Port Moresby APEC summit with visible concrete action, American authority will be weakened and China will be further emboldened.

More on this: How Trump could avoid a war with China

This would exacerbate underlying doubts about the Trump Administration’s commitments to US allies, including Australia, which would weaken the solidity of America’s regional alliances and strengthen China’s geo-strategic push to become the pre-eminent regional power.

While the joint Manus base is an American and Australian attempt to push back against Chinese expansion in the region, the proposal reflects similar – but not identical – Australian and American geo-strategic goals.

Washington will likely regard a base on Manus as part of its strategy to contain Chinese geo-strategic expansion and remain the dominant power in the region.

From Canberra’s perspective, Manus will likely be part of its strategy to fully exert its limited influence to encourage US and Chinese co-operation. Australian policymakers believe this can help the country maximise its strategic and economic interests from its relationships with both the US and China.

Whether Australia will ‘have to choose’ between its strategic relationship with America or its economic relationship with China remains an open question. Australia’s relationships with both countries have thus far sustained themselves because they have served the geo-strategic and economic interests of the three nations.

It remains to be seen whether the current regional powerplay between the US and China leads to open conflict or a peaceful resolution. The only certainty for Australia, indeed for the whole region, is that a US-China conflict will be disastrous to everyone’s interests.

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