The United States’ top diplomat Antony Blinken signed a defence cooperation pact, plus a coastal surveillance agreement, with Papua New Guinea on Monday.
The US Secretary of State, who was filling in for President Joe Biden, who had to fly home to resolve the US debt ceiling crisis, also met with 14 Pacific island leaders – as did Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who pledged support for the Pacific Islands at a summit in the capital Port Moresby.
Blinken said the deals signed with PNG would expand the Pacific island nation’s capabilities and make it easier for the US military to train with its forces.
Washington and its allies are seeking to deter Pacific island nations from forming security ties with China, a rising concern amid tensions over Taiwan.
Climate change the biggest worry
Leaders of the Pacific islands, whose territories span 40 million square kilometres (15 million square miles) of ocean, have said rising sea levels caused by climate change are their most pressing security priority.
Meeting with PNG Prime Minister James Marape, Blinken said the United States would deepen its partnership across the board with PNG. They discussed economic development, the climate crisis, and the importance of continuing US engagement with the Pacific, the State Department said.
“The defence cooperation was drafted by the United States and Papua New Guinea as equals and sovereign partners,” Blinken said at a signing ceremony.
It will expand PNG defence capabilities to enhance humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and make it easy for United States and PNG forces to train together, Blinken said.
“It will be fully transparent,” he added.
Patrols of PNG waters to deter illegal fishing, drugs
A separate agreement would increase maritime surveillance of PNG’s exclusive economic zone through US Coast Guard patrols, protecting its economy from illegal fishing.
Blinken said partnerships with businesses would bring tens of billions of dollars’ worth of new investment to PNG.
US President Joe Biden sent “his regret that he was not able to be here”, he added. Biden was forced to cancel his travel to PNG amid debt ceiling negotiations in Washington.
Marape said the agreement would boost economic security by giving PNG’s defence force “the ability to know what is happening in its waters – something we have never had since 1975”.
Several universities held protests at campuses against the signing of the Defence Cooperation Agreement, with opposition politicians saying it would upset China. Marape has denied it would stop PNG from working with China, an important trade partner.
The US defence agreement was an extension of an existing agreement, he said earlier. Marape told media on Sunday the defence agreement would also see an increase in US military presence over the next decade.
Washington will provide $45 million in new funds as it worked with PNG to strengthen economic and security cooperation, including protective equipment for the PNG defence force, climate change mitigation and tackling transnational crime and HIV/AIDS, the US State Department said.
Modi backs free, open Indo-Pacific
Modi told the 14 leaders of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation that India would be a reliable development partner to small island states, and was committed to a “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific”.
“Without any doubt we are willing to share our capabilities and experiences in digital technology, space technology, health security, food security, climate change and environment protection,” he said in opening remarks.
The Quad leaders of Australia, United States, Japan and India had agreed in Hiroshima to increase cooperation with Pacific Island countries, he added.
In his opening remarks, Marape urged India to think of small island states who “suffer as a result of big nations at play”.
Marape said Russia’s war with Ukraine, for instance, had caused inflation and high fuel and power prices in the region’s small economies.
Historians have said PNG and the Solomon Islands – which last year struck a security pact with Beijing – were essential to the US drive across the Pacific to liberate the Philippines in World War Two.
- Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard