The United States is scheduled to sign a new security pact with Papua New Guinea on Monday amid concerns in PNG about increasing militarisation and as the US continues to compete with China for influence in the Pacific.
The state department said the new agreement would provide a framework to help improve security cooperation, enhance the capacity of Papua New Guinea’s defence force and increase regional stability.
A draft copy of the Defence Cooperation Agreement leaked last week sparked concern in PNG about the extent of US military involvement in the country, with reports it gives US personnel and contractors legal immunity, allows aircraft, vehicles and vessels operated by or on behalf of the US to move freely within its territory and territorial waters and exempts US staff from all migration requirements.
Papua New Guinea prime minister James Marape on Monday denied that US staff would have legal immunity and said no amendments would be made to the constitution or laws of the country.
Marape said the country faced significant security challenges. “I need to strengthen and protect my country’s borders and ensure the safety of my people,” he said. “So this has nothing to do with geopolitics, this cooperation will strengthen our defence and help build our capacity.”
“And it is just an elevation of the SOFA [status of forces] agreement that is already in place, and this agreement will not stop us from signing other similar agreements with other countries, including China,” he said. “We are free to sign defence corporations with any country that shares our values and principles, and that may include our friends from the East or the West, including our longtime traditional friends Australia, US or even China.”
Marape said his cabinet had cleared the agreement and that it would be signed on Monday, and that a copy of the agreement would be made publicly available.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken arrived in PNG early on Monday, travelling in Joe Biden’s place after the US president was forced to cancel his plans to make a brief but historic stop there to sign the pact. Biden would have become the first sitting US president to visit a Pacific island, but he cancelled to focus on the debt limit talks in Washington, sparking concerns about how reliable a partner the US is in the Pacific.
Papua New Guinea’s location just north of Australia makes it strategically significant. It was the site of fierce battles during the second world war, and with a population of nearly 10 million people, it’s the most populous Pacific Island nation.
However, many in the Pacific are concerned about the increasing militarisation of the region and that PNG would be stuck between an increasingly hostile US and China. Civil societies and student unions have raised concerns over the Defence Cooperation Agreement, with talks of protests spreading online over the weekend.
Former prime minister Peter O’Neill accused Marape of placing the country “at the epicentre of a military storm between China and the USA by agreeing to enter into defence arrangements with both superpowers without consultation with our people.”
Opposition leader Joseph Lelang said last week: “We have a foreign policy of ‘friends to all and enemies to none’. We … should not be blinded by the dollar sign or be coerced into signing deals that may be detrimental to us, in the long run.”
Marape said on Monday there will be an increased presence of US military personnel and contractors over the next two years but that a US military base would not be established.
Last year, the nearby Solomon Islands signed its own security pact with China, a move that raised alarm throughout the Pacific. The US has increased its focus on the Pacific, opening embassies in Solomon Islands and Tonga, reviving Peace Corps volunteer efforts, and encouraging more business investment.
In response to news of Blinken’s visit to PNG, China warned against the introduction of “geopolitical games” into the region.
Last week, Papua New Guineans reacted with disappointment to Biden’s cancellation. Preparations for the visit began six months ago and included a plan to shut down the country’s airspace as well as to designate Monday a public holiday to allow residents of Port Moresby to catch a glimpse of him. Roads were set to be closed and students and cultural dancing groups were planning to line the path of Biden’s motorcade.
“We are disappointed that this historic visit has been cancelled as we have prepared well, spent a lot of time, effort and energy towards the visit and we were all looking forward to the visit,” said Powes Parkop, the governor of the National Capital District.
The US visit was timed to coincide with a trip by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who was hosting a meeting with Pacific Island leaders to discuss ways to better cooperate.
New Zealand prime minister Chris Hipkins, who met Marape on Monday morning and was also due to meet Blinken, welcomed the greater US interest in the region but also drew a distinction with his own nation’s efforts.
“New Zealand doesn’t support militarisation of the Pacific. Having said that, a military presence doesn’t necessarily signify militarisation,” he said. “New Zealand has a military presence in the Pacific regularly following natural disasters … We shouldn’t assume that all military partnerships are necessarily about conflict.
“We are interested in working with the Pacific on issues where we have mutual interest. Issues around climate change. And we’re not going to be attaching military strings to that support.”
Asked how this pact was different to the China-Solomons agreement, which New Zealand called “very concerning”, he said: “This is a very transparent arrangement, so we know what’s in the arrangement, and we can see that it’s an extension of an existing relationship. And it isn’t just about military presence. It’s also about development, it’s about electrification, it’s about a range of other different issues.”
With Associated Press