US to sign new security pact with Papua New Guinea amid competition with China
PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea — The United States is due to sign a new security pact with Papua New Guinea on Monday as it continues to compete with China for influence in the Pacific.
Papua New Guinea’s location, just north of Australia, gives it strategic importance. It was the site of fierce battles during World War II, and with a population of nearly 10 million, it is the most populous Pacific island nation.
The State Department said the new agreement would provide a framework to help improve security cooperation, build the capacity of Papua New Guinea’s defense forces and increase regional stability.
Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape said at a breakfast meeting on Monday that the country was facing significant security challenges, from skirmishes inside the country to boats illegal fishing grounds that lit up the night like skyscrapers.
“We have our internal security as well as our sovereignty security issues,” Marape said. “We are stepping up on this front to make sure our borders are secure.”
But many in the Pacific worry about the growing militarization of the region.
Last year, the neighboring Solomon Islands signed its own security pact with China, a move that raised alarm across the Pacific. The United States has increased its focus on the Pacific, opening embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga, reviving Peace Corps volunteer efforts, and encouraging more business investment.
But some have questioned the reliability of the US partner in the Pacific, particularly after President Joe Biden canceled plans to make a historic stopover in Papua New Guinea to sign the pact. Biden would have become the first sitting US president to visit a Pacific island country, but he ended up canceling to focus on debt limit talks at home.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled in place of Biden, arriving in Papua New Guinea early Monday. Responding to news of Blinken’s impending visit, China warned against introducing “geopolitical games” to 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 to discuss ways to better cooperate.
New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, who met Marape for breakfast was also due to meet Blinken in Papua New Guinea, said he welcomed increased US interest in the region.
But he also made a distinction between his own nation’s efforts.
“We’re not interested in militarizing the Pacific,” Hipkins said. “We are interested in working with the Pacific on issues where we have a mutual interest. Issues around climate change. And we’re not going to attach military conditions to that support.