22 May 2023

US and Papua New Guinea sign security deal

22 May 2023

The United States has signed a new security pact with Papua New Guinea as it competes with China for influence in the Pacific.

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

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

The full agreement will be made public once politicians in both countries have an opportunity for input, which is likely to be in a couple of months.

At a breakfast meeting, Papua New Guinea prime minister James Marape said his country faces significant security challenges, from skirmishes within the country to illegal fishing boats that light up the night like skyscrapers.

“We have our internal security as well as our sovereignty security issues,” Mr 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.

Student Naomi Kipoi, 17, said she was opposed to the security pact because she felt it means the US could come to her country whenever it pleased without permission. She said China had been a big help to her country by building roads and funding schools.

“The US didn’t help us with aid and other things,” Naomi said. “They’re just trying to sign the agreement.”

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 President Joe Biden cancelled his plans to make an historic stop in Papua New Guinea to sign the pact.

Mr 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.

The increased US presence in the Pacific is something we welcome

US secretary of state Antony Blinken travelled in Mr Biden’s place, arriving in Papua New Guinea early on Monday. In response to news of Mr Blinken’s impending visit, China warned against the introduction of “geopolitical games” into the region.

As well as the defence pact, the US also signed a maritime agreement with Papua New Guinea which will allow the US Coast Guard to partner with the Pacific nation to counter illegal fishing and drug smuggling.

The US visit coincided with a trip by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who was hosting a meeting with Pacific island leaders to discuss ways to better cooperate.

Mr Blinken met New Zealand prime minister Chris Hipkins and said the two nations had a shared vision for the region.

“To make sure that it remains free, open, secure and prosperous,” Mr Blinken said.

Mr Hipkins told Mr Blinken he was very happy that the US politician had made the trip.

“The increased US presence in the Pacific is something we welcome,” Mr Hipkins said.

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