US President Joe Biden will sign defence and surveillance agreements when he visits Papua New Guinea later this month, the country’s foreign minister has said.
Foreign Minister Justin Tkachenko said a Defence Cooperation Agreement between the US and PNG was finalised last week, “which now allows us to officially sign it when Biden comes here”.
PNG, the biggest and most populous nation in the South Pacific, will also see a doubling of US development assistance to $32 million.
That sum includes $25 million to tackle its security priority of climate change, State Department documents submitted to the US Congress show.
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PNG welcomes deal to ‘protect our resources’
Biden and senior US officials have recognized the strategic importance of PNG and other Pacific island nations. There is also a personal connection, as PNG was where one of Biden’s uncles died during World War Two.
Washington is seeking to deter Pacific island nations, which span 40 million kilometres of ocean, from security ties with China, a rising concern amid tensions over Taiwan.
Biden will visit the PNG capital Port Moresby on May 22 on his way to a summit of the Quad security alliance – the United States, Japan, India and Australia – in Sydney, the White House has confirmed.
His visit will coincide with a meeting of the 18 Pacific island leaders.
A separate agreement with PNG will allow the US Coast Guard to patrol the country’s vast exclusive economic zone, with PNG officials on board as “ship riders”, also will be signed and cover satellite surveillance, Tkachenko said.
“We will be able to utilise the US satellite security systems. Once we sign that it will help monitor our waters, which we can’t at the moment,” he said.
“It will be a fantastic agreement protecting our natural resources from being illegally poached and stolen, especially our fishing,” he added.
China pact with Solomon Islands
China has a decade-long history of infrastructure projects in the region, and last year struck a security pact with the Solomon Islands, which has since placed a moratorium on US Coast Guard vessels entering its waters.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has visited the region three times, including a 2018 visit to PNG, but Beijing last year failed to sign 10 nations to a security and trade deal.
For Biden, the visit also will have personal significance that highlights PNG’s importance to regional security. Two of his uncles were based in PNG in World War Two as airmen, including one who died in a plane crash in May 1944, Biden recalled during a 2016 visit to Australia.
Historians have said PNG was essential to the US drive across the Pacific to liberate the Philippines in the war, and Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong has urged people to look at history to understand “the strategic importance of Pacific islands to Australia’s security needs”.
Region is key to defending Australia
Classified portions of an Australian defence review were reported by local media to warn Australia would be unable to defend itself from a Chinese missile attack launched from the Pacific.
Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles, if positioned in the Pacific islands, could stop US and Australian navy movement and interdict vital trade routes, University of NSW professor David Kilcullen, a former special adviser on counter-insurgency to the US Secretary of State, said.
“A US-China conflict could play out across the whole Pacific including Melanesia and the Polynesian islands, not just in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, which puts PNG and the Solomons firmly in the spotlight,” he said.
China and the Solomon Islands have denied their security pact allows a navy base. China has been pushing to build a huge port on Daru, a PNG island just north of Australia.
The US pledged an $800 million economic assistance package after meeting with Pacific island leaders last year, which must be approved by Congress in negotiations not due to progress until the autumn.
US embassies recently opened in the Solomons and Tonga, but consent for proposed embassies in Vanuatu and Kiribati is yet to be gained, an official told a congressional hearing.
Biden’s meeting in person with Pacific leaders is seen in the region as a major step in restoring trust.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was told by Pacific leaders in Fiji last year: “We have felt at times, to borrow an American term, like a flyover country.
“Small dots spotted from plane windows of leaders en route to meetings where they spoke about us, rather than with us, if they spoke of us at all.”
- Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard
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