Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has traveled to Papua New Guinea to sign defense cooperation and maritime agreements with the Pacific island nation and meet with regional leaders. The trip comes as China exerts its influence in the region.
Blinken was visiting the capital, Port Moresby, in place of U.S. President Joe Biden, who cut short an Asia-Pacific trip to return to Washington for negotiations on the U.S. debt limit. Biden would have been the first U.S. president to visit Papua New Guinea.
Blinken was expected to meet with members of the Pacific Islands Forum, a policy group that includes the island and other countries in the region and attend the deal-signing ceremony.
The agreements call for developing military infrastructure, boosting support for the Papua New Guinea Defense Force and countering illicit transnational maritime activities.
U.S. officials say that Washington is supplying $12.4 million in personal protective equipment to the PNG Defense Force, including ballistic helmets, flak jackets with armor plates, elbow pads, knee pads, and eye protection, to its border patrol and domestically for security operations.
PNG's foreign affairs secretary, Elias Wohengu, has said the widely publicized defense deal maintains the country's sovereignty and is in line with its laws. At a press briefing, he told reporters no laws would be changed to enter into the deal.
Secretary Wohengu made the statement amidst rumors of leaked documents regarding the defense cooperation deal that stirred debate and led to questions as to whether such an agreement could undermine national security.
"There's no immunity for any foreign [military] personnel that would preside in Papua New Guinea. If a crime is committed, punishment would be carried out. To anyone spreading rumors that we will provide immunity, there is no fact in this agreement that speaks truth to those lies," said Wohengu.
Since its independence in 1975, Papua New Guinea has signed similar security agreements with Australia and Indonesia. Wohengu stated that the agreement will not prevent it from engaging with other nations in signing future defense cooperation deals.
Separately, the maritime deal, or ship rider agreement, is expected to cover illicit transnational activities at sea.
U.S. officials say the maritime agreement will enable the U.S. Coast Guard to work alongside PNG naval patrols to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing by closing global gaps in enforcement.
Apart from security concerns, climate change has been one of the issues central to cooperation between the United States and Papua New Guinea.
The State Department says that through USAID, the United States will provide an additional $12.5 million to help Papua New Guinea strengthen critical resources and systems needed to make communities more climate resilient. Aid to the nation is also expected to address electricity needs.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press has cited Chinese officials as warning against the introduction of "geopolitical games" in the South Pacific.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin was quoted at a recent briefing as saying Beijing opposes "any introduction of any geopolitical games into the Pacific Island country region.' The comments followed the announcement of Blinken's visit to Papua New Guinea.
Paul Rowland, a foreign affairs analyst who has lived in Papua New Guinea, says U.S. engagement with the Pacific Island countries has increased since 2018 when then-Vice President Pence visited the Solomon Islands. He notes that Chinese officials traveled to the region three times since 2018 and signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands in 2022.
Rowland says in hindsight, there has been a long history of U.S. engagement with the region.
"If you go to islands, there's a place called Ironbottom Sound, which is - there's kind of Japanese and American and Australian ships at the bottom of that where major battles were fought. So, this goes back almost a century. So that's not new. What is new is the real sort of engagement. Opening of new diplomatic missions. Opening of new military bases in Papua New Guinea, for example, the U.S. Navy and military is helping along with the Australians to recondition and upgrade the naval facilities in Papua New Guinea," Rowland explained.
Recently, the United States reopened its embassy in the Solomon Islands after a 30-year absence and plans to open its posts in Vanuatu and Tonga.
Some information provided by the Associated Press and Reuters news agency. Some information also provided from VOA files.