Planning is underway for United States President Joe Biden to make a historic visit to Papua New Guinea on his way to Australia next month as the U.S. continues to ramp up its diplomatic push in the Pacific.
PNG and U.S. officials have told the ABC that Biden is likely to meet his PNG counterpart, James Marape, and other Pacific leaders in Port Moresby, after attending the G7 leaders in Hiroshima on 20 – 21 May, and before he travels to Australia for the Quad leaders meeting in Sydney on 24 May.
If the trip is confirmed, Biden will become the first sitting U.S. President — at least in recent history — to visit any Pacific Island nation, excluding U.S. territories in the region.
It will also mark a period of intense, high-level diplomatic activity in Port Moresby in the lead up to the Quad meeting.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already announced that he’ll also meet with Pacific Island leaders in Port Moresby on his way from Japan to Australia, as New Delhi moves to expand its influence in the Pacific.
The governor of the PNG Province of West New Britain, Sasindran Muthuvel, confirmed that Modi and Biden were both expected to visit Port Moresby in late May.
“This will be a hectic schedule [for Modi], because it will only be a one-day visit on 22 May, where he will meet all the Pacific leaders, he will meet our Prime Minister,” he told the ABC’s Wantok Programme.
“And … I’ve now heard the U.S. President will come [too].”
Multiple U.S. government sources confirmed the plan for a presidential visit but stressed that it had not yet been fully locked in, and that arrangements were still being discussed.
One official told the ABC the U.S. President was expected to hold bilateral talks with PNG leaders and top bureaucrats in Port Moresby, as well as meeting other Pacific Island leaders.
PNG’s foreign minister, Justin Tkatchenko, told the ABC earlier this month that the U.S. and PNG were finalising a Defence Cooperation Agreement after talks between officials in Hawaii and PNG earlier this year.
“We have an understanding to ensure that our defence capabilities are enhanced through training, infrastructure, asset improvement” Tkatchenko said.
“It’s about building up our capabilities. That’s very important.”
If the defence agreement is signed by both leaders, it would come on the heels of a recent Status of Forces Agreement, which PNG signed with the UK government last week, and a similar pact signed with France late last year.
PNG and Australia are also working on their own bilateral security treaty, and have committed to finalising negotiations by June.
Biden’s visit would also come against the backdrop of Washington and Beijing jostling for influence across the region.
The Biden administration has intensified its diplomatic efforts in the Pacific, including by hosting a major White House Summit with Pacific Island leaders in September last year.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is expanding its diplomatic network in Pacific nations, opening a new Embassy in Solomon Islands and preparing to establish new diplomatic missions in Vanuatu, Kiribati and Tonga.
It has also appointed a new envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum, and moved to both expand the Peace Corps presence in the region and establish a new regional mission for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The Biden administration has also pledged to invest more than US$1.2 billion into key Pacific priorities over the coming decade; the bulk of that is around US$900 million in new funding for a Forum Fisheries Agency agreement, which provides critical income to Pacific nations.
However, that money remains hostage to negotiations in the U.S. Congress as both major parties haggle over the U.S foreign aid budget.
There has long been speculation about Biden visiting the Pacific this year, particularly after the recent trip to the region by the president’s top Asia advisor, Kurt Campbell.
Micronesian leaders also flagged Mr Biden’s visit earlier this year in a surprise declaration contained in a broader joint statement, while Pacific officials told the ABC last month that the president might come to the region immediately before the Quad summit.
The last senior Biden administration representative to visit the Pacific was U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who travelled to Fiji in February last year to meet Pacific Island leaders.
In 2018, the then-U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence also attended the APEC meeting — along with Chinese President Xi Jinping — in Port Moresby, while then-US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton travelled to the Cook Islands in 2012 for the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting.
The U.S. has repeatedly insisted that its renewed interest in the region is not driven by a desire to push back against China’s influence, but because it wants to contribute to stability in the region while helping Pacific Island nations tackle serious threats such as climate change and illegal fishing.
However, the U.S. President’s planned visit is still another reminder of the way strategic competition is intensifying across the region.
The Australia chair at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Charles Edel, told the ABC a visit from Biden would have real historical significance.
“A first-ever presidential trip to the Pacific would allow President Biden to build on the Pacific Islands summit he hosted last September in Washington,” Edel said.
“It would also demonstrate just how seriously the White House is taking its engagement with the Pacific Islands community.”
Tkatchenko said it was a “delicate balancing act” for Papua New Guinea as it tried to open new economic opportunities with China, while assuaging the strategic concerns of traditional partners such as Australia.
“For the U.S. and Australia to step-up in a bigger way just shows you the extent of the concern that these countries are having,” he said.
“We will continue to work with China, we will continue to support China in the areas of economic independence, in trade, in building up our nation. And we will stick to our partners in security.” The ABC approached the U.S. Embassy in Papua New Guinea for comment about the planned visit, but it referred all questions to staff at the White House, who declined to comment.