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.
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