This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The United States signed a defense cooperation agreement on Monday with Papua New Guinea, and announced other security and humanitarian support, in a deepening of its relationship with the most populous Pacific island country.
Papua New Guinea’s capital Port Moresby also hosted India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a summit with leaders of 14 Pacific island countries, underscoring the increased geopolitical competition in the vast ocean region where China’s diplomatic relations have burgeoned.
The defense agreement is “mutually beneficial,” Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape said at the signing ceremony.
“In the context of Papua New Guinea it secures our national interest,” he said, predicting it would help the country, one of the poorest in the region, to develop a “robust economy.”
Responding to domestic criticism of the defense agreement, Marape said, “this signing in no way, shape and form encroaches into our sovereignty.”
U.S. President Joe Biden had planned to stop over in Papua New Guinea on Monday before attending a meeting in Sydney with the leaders of Australia, Japan and India. He canceled the trip to focus on high-stakes Federal debt-limit negotiations, in an apparent setback for U.S. efforts to exert influence in the Pacific.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who traveled to Port Moresby in the president’s place, said he carried an invitation from Biden to Pacific leaders to visit Washington in the fall. As part of efforts to counter Beijing’s influence in the Pacific, Biden hosted a meeting of Pacific island leaders in September last year in Washington.
“Simply put we are committed to growing all aspects of our relationship,” Blinken said at the defense agreement signing ceremony.
The pact, he said, would be transparent to the public and make it easier for the two countries’ defense forces to train together and improve the capacity of Papua New Guinea’s military to respond to natural disasters.
China, over several decades, has become a substantial source of trade, infrastructure and aid for developing Pacific island countries as it seeks to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and build its own set of global institutions.
Last year, China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, alarming the U.S. and its allies such as Australia. The Solomons and Kiribati switched their diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taiwan in 2019.
Modi, in his speech to Pacific leaders, did not specifically mention China but said his country was committed to a “free and open Indo Pacific,” the U.S. terminology for a vast region spanning the Indian and Pacific oceans.
Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, speaking at a U.S.-Pacific island leaders meeting, said there was a “level of disappointment” in Biden’s cancellation. He also said he welcomed the fall invitation.
‘Intrusion’ into PNG affairs
The defense cooperation agreement between Papua New Guinea and the U.S. has been criticized by some analysts and groups such as the PNG Trade Union Congress as being overly accommodative to Washington’s interests. Australia’s Sky TV reported on what it said was a leaked draft version of the agreement last week.
“It is the processes our government followed and the motivation behind fast tracking the processes with zero public consultation and parliament debate [that] opens up public debate to all sorts of conclusions,” said Anton Sekum, acting general secretary of the Trade Union Congress, in a statement on Monday.
“Any agreement that will have elements of intrusion into our sovereignty and may put the country in harm’s way must not be done without all citizens’ consent,” he said.
Elias Wohengu, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, who was Papua New Guinea’s chief negotiator in the defense cooperation talks, said there was no factual basis to rumors that U.S. military personnel who broke Papua New Guinea’s laws would enjoy immunity from prosecution.
Speculation it would preclude defense agreements with other countries and required changes to Papua New Guinea’s laws was also incorrect, he said.
“There is no immunity in this agreement for any foreign personnel that will be present in Papua New Guinea,” Wohengu told a press conference on the weekend.
“If a crime is committed, punishment will be carried out. So anyone who goes out spreading rumors that we will be providing immunity to offenders is wrong,” he said.
The State Department said the text of the defense cooperation agreement would be made public when it comes into force.
Papua New Guinea’s Ministry of Defense said it would hold a question and answer session for civil society groups and journalists at its headquarters on Tuesday.
Papua New Guinea and the U.S. also signed a shiprider agreement that provides the basis for personnel from the Pacific island country to work on U.S. coast guard and naval vessels, and vice versa, in targeting economic and security weaknesses such as illegal fishing.
Among other support announced by the State Department, the U.S. government will supply $12.4 million of equipment to Papua New Guinea’s defense force.
It includes $5.4 million of body armor, provided earlier this month, such as ballistic helmets and flak vests with armor plates. Some $7 million will be provided for military dress uniforms for Papua New Guinea’s 50th independence events in 2025.
The U.S. is also exploring warehousing of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief supplies in Papua New Guinea.