Australia’s ABC reports that two senior members of the National Security Council made a rare visit to the Pacific last week, with stops in Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. The trip is seen as the latest sign that the United States plans to challenge China’s growing influence.
The officials are Matt Pottinger, senior director for Asian Affairs on the National Security Council, and Alexander Gray, just named to the newly created position of director for Oceania and Indo-Pacific Security.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation report quoted Ashley Townshend from the United States Studies Centre at Sydney University, who described the creation of that position as significant.
“There has never been a dedicated office in the NSC for the Pacific,” he said, “so you see a much greater degree of prioritization and focus.”
Over the past few years, China has emerged as a major source of funding for big infrastructure projects around the Pacific and many countries have signed on to its Belt and Road Initiative. In a speech to the APEC Summit in Papua New Guinea last year, Vice President Mike Pence denounced what some call debt-trap diplomacy.
While he didn’t name China directly, Pence said “The projects they support are often unsustainable and poor quality. Too often they come with strings attached and lead to staggering debt.”
Both the United States and Australia worry that those strings may include access to military bases. Both countries promised to upgrade PNG’s Lombrun Naval Base in the Admiralty Islands, reportedly to preclude a Chinese bid and, along with New Zealand, they propose to demonstrate another path to infrastructure development, with an ambitious project to deliver electricity to more than 70 percent of Papua New Guinea.
Pacific nations have largely welcomed the new American focus but do not want to be asked to choose sides.