US signs new security pact with PNG amid competition with China

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Port Moresby: The United States and Papua New Guinea have signed a security pact that will make it easier for the forces of both countries to work together amid concerns about China’s growing influence in the Pacific.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who travelled to Port Moresby representing President Joe Biden, signed the defence and maritime surveillance agreement with the PNG government.

“The defence co-operation was drafted by the United States and Papua New Guinea as equals and sovereign partners,” Blinken said at the signing ceremony.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken travelled to Papua New Guinea after the G7 in Japan, representing President Joe Biden.Credit: AP

Papua New Guinea’s location just north of Australia makes it strategically significant. It was the site of fierce battles during World War II, and with a population of nearly 10 million people, it’s the most populous Pacific Island nation.

The State Department said the new agreement would provide a framework to help improve security co-operation, enhance the capacity of Papua New Guinea’s defence force and increase regional stability.

Ahead of the signing, at a breakfast meeting with New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, PNG Prime Minister James Marape said his country faced significant security challenges, from skirmishes within the country to illegal fishing boats that lit up the night like skyscrapers.

New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins (right) visit Gordon’s Market in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on Monday.Credit: AP

“We have our internal security as well as our sovereignty security issues,” Marape said. “We’re stepping up on that front to make sure our borders are secure.”

But the agreement sparked student protests in the second-largest city, Lae. And many in the Pacific are concerned about the increasing militarisation of the region.

Last year, nearby Solomon Islands signed its own security pact with China, a move that raised alarm throughout the Pacific. The US has increased its focus on the Pacific, opening embassies in Solomon Islands and Tonga, reviving Peace Corps volunteer efforts, and encouraging more business investment.

But some have questioned how reliable a partner the US is in the Pacific, particularly after Biden cancelled his plans to make a historic stop in the country to sign the pact. Biden would have been the first sitting US president to visit any Pacific Island country, but he ended up cancelling to focus on the debt limit talks back at home.

Blinken travelled in Biden’s place, arriving in PNG early on Monday. In response to news of Blinken’s impending visit, China warned against the introduction of “geopolitical games” into the region.

The US visit was timed to coincide with a trip by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was hosting a meeting with Pacific Island leaders.

Modi pledged support for the Pacific Islands, telling the 14 leaders of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Co-operation that India would be a reliable development partner to small island states, and was committed to a “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific”.

Indian PM Narendra Modi meet PNG PM James Marape in Port Moresby on Monday.Credit: Twitter

“Without any doubt we are willing to share our capabilities and experiences in digital technology, space technology, health security, food security, climate change and environment protection,” he said in opening remarks.

Hipkins also met with Blinken while in PNG. He said he welcomed the greater US interest in the region but also drew a distinction to his own nation’s efforts.

“We are not interested in the militarisation of the Pacific,” Hipkins said. “We are interested in working with the Pacific on issues where we have mutual interest. Issues around climate change. And we’re not going to be attaching military strings to that support.”

Reuters, AP

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