Papua New Guinea, US sign security pact with eye on China

·4-min read
India Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he supported a free and open Indo-Pacific
India Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he supported a free and open Indo-Pacific

Papua New Guinea signed a defence pact with the United States on Monday, 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.

Defence Minister 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 defence cooperation agreement is done," Prime Minister James Marape said at the signing ceremony, adding the Pacific island was "elevating" its relationship with the United States.

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.

"The agreement that we reached, the work that we are doing, is not about any other country," he told reporters at the end of the meeting.

"It's about our relationship with the Pacific islands and the shared vision we have for this region."

Washington's diplomatic overtures in the Pacific received another boost on Monday after it renewed a key strategic pact with the island of Palau.

- Intensifying rivalry -

In a sign of the intensifying rivalry over the South Pacific, Blinken was not the only representative of a major power 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 leaders.

After making the first visit to the country by an Indian premier, Modi tweeted it was a "historic" trip.

By signing the security deal with PNG, Blinken will also 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 neighbouring Solomon Islands that allows China to deploy troops to the country.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning on Monday said 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.

- 'Illegal activities' -

The United States fears that a Chinese military foothold in the South Pacific could outflank its facilities on Guam, and make the defence of Taiwan more complicated in the event of a Chinese invasion.

The State Department said the pact with PNG would "increase stability and security in the region".

"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 country's waters in return for access to US satellite surveillance to battle "illegal activities on the high sea".

The deal would not prevent him from signing similar agreements with other nations, including China, he said.

- Student protests -

The agreement has prompted student protests at several universities, PNG's biggest newspaper the Post Courier reported, over fears it gives US forces too much autonomy at some of the country's key entry points.

In Port Moresby, scores of students gathered at the University of Papua New Guinea into the evening, with some setting tyres on fire. A private security guard at the university said stones were being thrown at passing vehicles.

Security was high in the capital on Monday, with roads blocked and bomb squad cars stationed around its downtown beach area close to where the leaders were meeting. Officers were also patrolling nearby waters on speedboats and jet skis.

Blinken replaced Joe Biden at the meeting after the US president cancelled the trip to take part in debt ceiling talks in Washington.

On top of the deal, the US pledged to PNG $45 million in funding to tackle organised crime, climate change and HIV/AIDS, as well as protective equipment for its military, the State Department said.