We assess that China is engaging and financially investing in development projects in Papua New Guinea to establish a stronger commercial presence and to potentially attain dual-use options in the South Pacific to counter Western influence in the region. This report covers two infrastructure projects in Papua New Guinea with Chinese activity: 1) the Momote Airport renovations and 2) the Ihu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) development.
Press reporting, business literature, social media, video data, and open imagery suggest Beijing's interest in widening China's economic footprint and obtaining potential dual-use options for infrastructure projects in Papua New Guinea. Yet, there are no current overhead imagery sources that illustrate Chinese military infrastructure or dual-use activity in Papua New Guinea at this time.
At Momote Airport, located only a short distance from the Papua New Guinean Lombrum Naval Base, a partially Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE) extended the airstrip and installed a new terminal and airport apron. Due to recent defense agreements, the Momote and Lombrum sites are now open to the U.S. and Australian navies. Commercial ties to Momote Airport could potentially allow China to use its access to the facilities to collect intelligence on Western military activity. Although there are no open sources to confirm Chinese intelligence collection at Momote, there are potential concerns with base information passed back to China due to the 2017 Chinese National Intelligence Law, which obligates Chinese entities to provide intelligence to the People's Republic of China (PRC) in service to national security. Chinese "dual-use" at Momote is now unlikely given the recent agreement for the U.S. to use the base, but the history and context of Momote can help better understand more ambiguous Chinese commercial ventures such as the Ihu SEZ. At the Ihu SEZ, Beijing invested a significant amount of funding towards the project, which included general plans for a naval and military base along with several civilian economic sectors. Recent imagery illustrates the SEZ in the early stages of the project with the construction of poorly maintained roads and no clear development of a naval or military base. Aside from the disproportionate amount of Chinese financing of the SEZ, the PRC has not otherwise openly expressed interest in the bases. Furthermore, Papua New Guinean project officials have provided mixed messaging about committing to Chinese access to the future bases.
About The Authors
Fellow at the Global (Dis)Information Lab & Senior Research Program Manager at the Intelligence Studies Project
Undergraduate Student at the University of Texas, Research Assistant at the Global (Dis)Information Lab