A medium tactical vehicle deployed with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5 arrives at Lombrum Naval Base, Papua New Guinea, in September 2021.

A medium tactical vehicle deployed with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5 arrives at Lombrum Naval Base, Papua New Guinea, in September 2021. (Nicolas Bartholomew/U.S. Navy)

Three U.S.-funded projects are in the works to refurbish a navy base built by American forces in Papua New Guinea during World War II.

The proposed upgrades, costing up to $25 million, include a jetty renovation, maritime training center and small boat facility at Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island, according to an April 2 announcement by Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Pacific.

“These … projects will support the [Papua New Guinea Defence Force], maritime security operations, U.S. military personnel participating in joint exercises, and the [U.S. Indo-Pacific Command] Theater Campaign Plan with various critical facilities,” the announcement said.

The projects follow visits to Papua New Guinea last year by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

A defense cooperation agreement signed during Blinken’s visit in May increases security cooperation between the two countries amid concerns about growing Chinese influence in the South Pacific.

Lombrum has already been upgraded with a medical facility, security fencing, communications gear and a chapel as part of a 2018 deal between Australia and Papua New Guinea, The Australian newspaper reported at the time.

The new proposed projects include a 7,556-square-foot regional maritime training center, a 7,351-square-foot small boat facility and refurbishing a 118-foot-long jetty, according to Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Pacific.

The projects’ combined cost was estimated at between $11 million and $25 million, according to the notice.

Manus is an 800-square-mile rock in the Bismarck Sea north of New Britain. It is just over 1,000 miles south of Guam, where Marines will begin relocating from Okinawa this year, and 1,300 miles east of Darwin, which hosts a 2,000-strong Marine rotational force.

During World War II, the U.S. built wharves, a 9,000-foot runway and accommodations for tens of thousands of troops on Manus.

It was a venue for the trials of Japanese war criminals and, in recent years, served as an offshore processing center for immigrants attempting to illegally enter Australia by sea. The center, for years a point of contention, held 1,400 immigrants in 2014. It was shut down in October 2019.

The projects in Papua New Guinea can been seen as a counter to a Chinese defense pact with the nearby Solomon Islands, which may lead to forward basing rights for Chinese navy vessels, Paul Buchanan, an American security expert based in New Zealand, said by email Tuesday.

“Although deep draft US and Australian vessels are not likely to use the Lombrum Naval Base (since that would require much more infrastructure development like dredging and pier/dock extensions), smaller vessels like patrol boats and even the US littoral combat vessels could well rotate through that facility and others in PNG,” he said.

The naval base, along with an airstrip at Lombrum, will allow the U.S. and Australia to keep a close eye on Chinese naval movements and support anti-piracy and counter-poaching operations in the Bismarck, Coral and Solomon seas and the wider Southwest Pacific, Buchanan said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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