PNG hopes to sign defence agreement during Biden visit

Prime Minister James Marape

Papua New Guinea hopes to sign a defense cooperation agreement with the United States during President Joe Biden’s stop over in the Pacific island nation this month.

Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape and Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko on the weekend said the White House had indicated that Biden will briefly visit the capital Port Moresby on 22 May and meet with leaders of Pacific island countries. 

At a press conference on Saturday, Tkatchenko said negotiations for a defence cooperation agreement between the U.S and Papua New Guinea, underway for several months, are now about 90 percent complete. He said Biden will be in Port Moresby for three hours, en route to Sydney for a separate summit.

“We are negotiating for the benefit of PNG as well as the U.S. Our objective is to have it signed when Biden comes,” Tkatchenko said. “The most important thing is building up the capacity of the PNG Defence Force when it comes to training, infrastructure and assets.”

He added it was important the two nations have an understanding of each other.

The White House has not confirmed a Biden stop over in Port Moresby. It said last week Biden will take part in a Group of Seven leaders summit in Japan from 19 – 21 May and attend a 24 May summit in Sydney with the leaders of Australia, Japan and India under a grouping known as the Quad. The White House press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in Papua New Guinea from 22-23 May for a state visit and alongside an India-Pacific Islands summit involving some 14 Pacific countries.

The Biden and Modi visits underline the heightened great power rivalry in the Pacific, where Washington and Beijing are vying for influence. 

“From what the Americans are saying to me, it’s the first ever for an American President to visit a Pacific island country,” Tkatchenko said. “That is the significance of this visit. It will play an important role in strengthening the bilateral and diplomatic relationships with the US and the Pacific island leaders.” 

Over several decades, China has become a substantial source of trade, infrastructure and aid for developing Pacific island countries as it seeks to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and build its own set of global institutions. 

Last year, China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, alarming the United States and its allies such as Australia. 

As part of efforts to counter Beijing’s influence in the Pacific, Biden hosted a meeting of Pacific island leaders in September last year in Washington.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Papua New Guinea for several days in November 2018, when Port Moresby hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. China bankrolled much of the infrastructure for the summit such as new roads and a conference center.

News of Biden’s possible visit was first reported by Papua New Guinea’s Post-Courier newspaper last week, angering Marape, who frequently lashes out at his country’s media.

“I continue to be disappointed at the Post-Courier’s coverage of national issues, and more importantly, such a planned visit by a world leader like President Biden,” he said on Thursday. 

“I caution the Post-Courier to be very careful when reporting on such sensitive matters.”

Marape has been increasingly critical of the media since being reelected last August following a violence-marred national vote that gave the governing coalition control of nearly all the seats in parliament. He has said that journalists were creating a bad perception of his government. Papua New Guinea last month signed a status of forces agreement with the United Kingdom that sets the rules for under which foreign military personnel operate in a country. It is also aiming to sign a security agreement with Australia by June.