The United States is set to sign a new security agreement with Papua New Guinea on Monday amid concerns in Papua New Guinea about increasing militarization and as the United States continues to compete with China for influence in the Pacific.
The State Department said the new agreement will provide a framework to help improve security cooperation, enhance the capacity of the Papua New Guinea Defense Force, and increase regional stability.
A draft version of the defense cooperation agreement that was leaked last week raised concerns in Papua New Guinea about the extent of US military involvement in the country, with reports that it gives US personnel and contractors legal immunity, and allows aircraft, vehicles and ships operated by or on behalf of the government. The United States shall move freely within its territory and territorial waters and exempt American personnel from all immigration requirements.
Papua New Guinea’s prime minister, James Marape, on Monday denied that US personnel have legal immunity and said no amendments would be made to the country’s constitution or laws.
Marabi said the country faced major security challenges. He said, “I need to strengthen and protect my country’s borders and ensure the safety of my people.” “So this has nothing to do with geopolitics, this cooperation will strengthen our defense and help build our capacity.”
Which is just a hike in SOFA [status of forces] The agreement already exists, and this agreement will not prevent us from signing other similar agreements with other countries, including China. “We are free to sign defense companies with any country that shares our values and principles, which may include our friends from the East or the West, including our longtime traditional friends Australia, the United States or even China.”
Marab said his government has agreed to the agreement and that it will be signed on Monday, and that a copy of the agreement will be made available to the public.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Papua New Guinea early Monday, traveling in Joe Biden’s place after the US president had to cancel plans to stand for a brief but historic period there to sign the agreement. Biden would have become the first sitting US president to visit a Pacific island, but he has taken the focus off debt-reduction talks in Washington, raising concerns about the reliability of the US’s Pacific partner.
Papua New Guinea’s location north of Australia makes it strategically important. It was the site of fierce battles during World War II, and with a population of nearly 10 million people, it is the most populous of the Pacific Island nations.
However, many in the Pacific worry about the increasing militarization of the region and that Papua New Guinea will be caught between the United States and an increasingly hostile China. Civil societies and student unions have raised concerns about the defense cooperation agreement, with conversations of the protests spreading online over the weekend.
Opposition Leader Joseph Lelang said last week: “We have a foreign policy of ‘friends to all, enemies to none’. … We should not be blinded by the dollar sign or forced to sign deals that could hurt us in the long run.”
On Monday, Merab said there would be an increased presence of US military personnel and contractors over the next two years, but no US military base would be established.
Last year, the neighboring Solomon Islands signed their own security pact with China, a move that sparked alarm across the Pacific. The United States increased its focus on the Pacific, opening embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga, reviving Peace Corps volunteer efforts, and encouraging more commercial investment.
In response to news of Blinken’s visit to Papua New Guinea, China warned against introducing “geopolitical games” in the region.
Last week, Papua New Guinea reacted with disappointment to Biden’s cancellation. Preparations for the visit began six months ago and included a plan to close the country’s airspace as well as a public holiday Monday to allow Port Moresby residents to catch a glimpse of it. Roads were closed and students and cultural dance groups were planning to pave the way for Biden’s motorcade.
Said Boyce Barkop, governor of the national capital distracts.
The US visit was timed to coincide with that of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was hosting a meeting with Pacific island leaders to discuss ways to improve cooperation.
New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hepkins, who met Marabe on Monday morning and was due to meet Blinken, welcomed the greater US interest in the region but also marked his country’s efforts.
“We’re not interested in militarizing the Pacific,” Hipkins said. “We are interested in working with the Pacific Ocean on issues in which we have a common interest. Issues around climate change. We will not tie military strings with that support.”
With the Associated Press