Papua New Guinea (PNG) yesterday signed a defense pact with the US, giving US forces access to its airfields and ports as Washington vies with China’s expanding footprint in the Pacific region.
Washington has growing concerns about China’s rise in the Pacific, where it is trying to woo nations with an array of diplomatic and financial incentives in return for strategic support.
Papua New Guinean Minister for Defense Win Bakri Daki inked the deal with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken before the start of a US meeting with the leaders of 14 South Pacific island states in the capital, Port Moresby.
“A defense cooperation agreement is done,” Papua New Guinean Prime Minister James Marape said at the signing ceremony, adding that the Pacific island was “elevating” its relationship with the US.
Blinken said under the “fully transparent” deal each of the two nations would be able to board the other’s vessels, share technical expertise and “better patrol” the seas together.
“We are working together to shape the future. We are very much looking forward to taking our partnership to the next level,” Blinken said.
In a sign of the intensifying rivalry over the South Pacific, Blinken was not alone in representing major powers aiming to counter Beijing’s growing economic, political and military presence.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew into town just hours before him on the eve of his own meeting, asserting his nation’s role as a regional power.
“We support a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. We respect the sovereignty and integrity of all countries,” Modi told Pacific island leaders.
After making the first visit to Papua New Guinea by an Indian prime minister, Modi said it was a “historic” trip.
By signing the security deal with Papua New Guinea, Blinken would expand the US military’s capacity to deploy in the region.
Beijing has snapped up mines and ports across the Pacific and last year inked a secretive security pact with the Solomon Islands that allows China to deploy troops to the nation.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Mao Ning (毛寧) yesterday said that Beijing would not object to “normal exchanges” between nations, but must be on guard for the use of cooperation “as a pretext for engaging in geopolitical games” in the Pacific.
The US fears that a Chinese military foothold in the South Pacific could outflank its facilities on Guam, and make the defense of Taiwan more complicated in the event of a Chinese invasion.
“Port Moresby is no longer the sleepy diplomatic outpost it once was,” said Gordon Peake, a senior adviser for the Pacific Islands at the United States Institute of Peace. “While China might not be mentioned anywhere in the document, it’s an important subtext in this story of deepening US-PNG relations.”
Marape last week said the deal would offer Washington movement in the nation’s waters in return for access to US satellite surveillance to battle “illegal activities on the high sea,” and that the deal would not prevent him from signing similar agreements with other nations, including China, he said.
On top of the deal, the US pledged to Papua New Guinea US$45 million in funding to tackle organized crime, climate change and HIV/AIDS, as well as protective equipment for its military, the state department said.
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