Australian naval vessels have arrived in Papua New Guinea to protect leaders at a summit of Pacific Rim nations next week, giving a foretaste of the newly elevated defense relationship between the two neighbors.

Defense officials confirmed that Australia’s helicopter docking ship HMAS Adelaide is now off Papua New Guinea’s capital of Port Moresby, accompanied by two patrol boats. They will provide security for cruise ships tethered in the harbor that will house delegates to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) gathering.

Australian special forces troops have been in Papua New Guinea for two months preparing security measures around facilities for the November 17-18 summit, which will be attended by US Vice President Mike Pence, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leaders of 18 other countries. A series of meetings held in conjunction with the summit starts on Monday.

About 1,500 Australian service personnel are providing the backbone of the Joint Security Task Force, supported by F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter jets and MRH-90 helicopters. The US is supplying customs vessels, while Indonesia and New Zealand have helped train local police and military.

The operation is mostly aimed at deterring potential terrorist threats, especially for the vulnerable cruise ships, but also sends a firm message of regional solidarity as China flexes its own muscles in the South Pacific and South China Sea.

Papua New Guinea-Manus Island-Map
Map depicting Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. Map: Facebook

Canberra and Port Moresby signed an expected deal late last week for Australia to redevelop the Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island and help expand the Papua New Guinea’s tiny armed forces. China had already made a similar offer.

Established by the US during World War II, Lombrum was occupied by Australian forces from 1946 until 1974, the year when it became independent from Australia. It was mostly used for refueling and as a stores depot.

Keeping China out of the base is almost as important to Australia and the US as having a springboard within reach of a strategic ring of existing installations and with access to shipping lanes in the South China Sea and South Pacific.

The US has naval facilities at Pearl Harbor on Hawaii, on Guam, Yokosuka in Japan and in Washington state, while US Marines are deployed in Darwin. Australia’s western fleet headquarters is near Perth and the navy has bases in Darwin and Cairns. There are also two air force bases in the Northern Territory, three in Western Australia and one in South Australia.

How Lombrum will fit into the strategic equation is unclear, as its facilities will still be limited even after the overhaul which will initially improve the wharf.

Australia-Navy-Flag
An Australian naval vessel at sea. Photo: Reuters

“It’s a pretty small place and the facilities there wouldn’t take an LHD (Landing Helicopter Dock), for example, but in time I guess we’ll look forward to seeing what the development provides,” Australian Chief of Navy Michael Noonan said, while adding it was “hugely important.”

If the LHD, with a displacement of 27,500 tons, can’t fit into the base, there is even less room for the Nimitz class of aircraft carriers used in the US Pacific fleet, which displace 102,000 tons – though it might still have a role for deployments of Marines in the US Pentagon’s strategic pivot to Asia.

“You can see nothing but potential going forward and we’ll just have to see how the details manifest themselves,” US Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson said. “From the United States Navy’s perspective, we look forward to identifying opportunities where we can support that.”

Lombrum will initially be fitted out for four new patrol boats that Australia is donating as part of a record US$412 million aid disbursement for Papua New Guinea in 2018-19, including US$86.5 million for security and logistics during the summit.

Papua New Guinea, which has only one plane and one helicopter in its defense force, has also reportedly submitted a shopping wish list of military equipment upgrades.

Australia is likely to base frigates and possibly some of its new destroyers at the base on a rotational basis to support patrols in Southeast Asia, and will probably operate surveillance flights over sea-lanes using drones.

China donated buses and coaches for the upcoming summit, upgraded some major roads and paid for the refitting of Port Moresby’s convention center, but has denied there is any contest with Australia to buy Papua New Guinea’s allegiance.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill (L) speaks with China's Premier Li Keqiang during a signing ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 21, 2018. (Photo by Fred DUFOUR / POOL / AFP)
Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill (L) with China’s Premier Li Keqiang at the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, June 21, 2018. Photo: Fred Dufour/Pool 

“We never interfere in other countries’ domestic affairs and our assistance never comes with political conditions,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during a weekend visit to Port Moresby.

“To some people, I would say this: rather than pointing fingers at other’s contributions it is better to take the efforts to do more things that will benefit the Pacific island states.”

Papua New Guinea Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato praised the “remarkable generosity that has sprung out of the hearts of the great Chinese people.”

“We only have to look at the evidence of what is around us how generous China has been to Papua New Guinea as host of APEC,” he said.

Beijing, which is reported to have approached Pacific island state Vanuatu to establish a naval base in the heart of the South Pacific, showed restraint in its response to the Lombrum deal, but urged Australia and Papua New Guinea to discard their “Cold War” thinking.

“I think the Pacific island countries should not be the sphere of influence of any country,” foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said.

“We hope the relevant countries and relevant people can … view China’s relations with Pacific island countries in an objective manner and contribute more to help the countries, rather than making all kinds of speculations.”