Papua New Guinea’s security deal with the US is a win for Washington – for now
Papua New Guinea’s security deal with the US is a win for Washington – for now –
He may have just signed a new defence cooperation agreement with the United States, but the prime minister of Papua New Guinea was determined to make it clear that he did not want to be forced into making a binary choice between Washington and Beijing.
Speaking after the deal was struck, James Marape reflected the view of Pacific leaders that they should not simply be seen as chess pieces in a broader geopolitical struggle,as China and the US step up their efforts to expand their influence among Pacific island countries. For Pacific countries, their priorities lie in their development needs and action on the climate crisis.
Marape was joined at the signing ceremony in Port Moresby by the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, who represented Joe Biden after the cancellation of what would have been the first sitting US presidential visit to a Pacific island country.
The US state department argued the agreement was simply a “natural progression” after decades of defence cooperation with PNG, allowing the two countries to “enhance security cooperation” and improve the capacity of the PNG defence force.
The agreement would allow for “bilateral and multilateral exercises and engagements in support of regional capacity building priorities”, the state department said. It would also enable the US “to be more responsive in emergency situations, such as those involving humanitarian assistance and disaster relief”.
Marape clearly wanted to take the opportunity to allay some domestic concerns about the new US agreement, the full text of which is expected to be released publicly soon. Those domestic concerns were highlighted by the opposition leader, Joseph Lelang, who 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.”
They were further underlined by protests at several universities on Monday.
But Marape said the deal was the culmination of “many years and months of engagement” with US officials and “it wasn’t shoved down our throat”.
The agreement, he said, was a mutual one driven by “the need for Papua New Guinea to have our defence force assisted, supported, stepped up”. It wasn’t a treaty-level document; that means there are no mutual defence obligations.
Marape was also at pains to say that any visiting US personnel would “come in at the invitation of our defence force, and not at their own will”. Extending his message to his fellow Pacific leaders he added: “That’s something that must be clear [to] everyone in the Pacific – upon our invitation, they come in.”
The parties also signed a second agreement to counter threats like illegal fishing and drug trafficking, with PNG able to participate in the US Coast Guard’s Shiprider program.
Interestingly, the PNG government says nothing in the deals will stop the country from deepening its cooperation with others, including China. It also comes at a time when Australia is seeking to negotiate its own bilateral security treaty with Papua New Guinea.
The Australian government insists it is still on track for a mid-year signing deadline. The minister for the Pacific, Pat Conroy, who was also in Port Moresby on Monday, said he was “confident that we will reach closure quite soon”.
It appears the Australia-PNG deal is a broadly drafted agreement that reflects the Boe Declaration on Regional Security; the 2018 statement that described the climate crisis as the Pacific’s biggest security threat.
“It does really reflect the breadth of the Boe Declaration, which said that security isn’t just about kinetic warfare, it’s about climate change, it’s about natural disasters, it’s about the right of countries to exist peacefully alongside each other,” Conroy said on Monday. “So it’s a broad treaty and it’s being negotiated in good spirit.”
There was another significant visitor to Port Moresby on Monday: the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, who held talks with Pacific leaders on a stopover on his way from Japan to Australia.
Modi addressed the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation and wanted to emphasise India’s reliability as a partner focused on practical cooperation, including in commerce, technology, health care and climate change. Marape gave him a warm welcome, describing Modi as the “leader of the global south”.
Against this backdrop, the US has been rushing to open embassies in the region, including in Solomon Islands, and is renewing Compacts of Free Association with the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Palau.
Michael Green, the chief executive officer of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and a former senior US official, says: “The Pacific does not want to be a source of competition between the US and its allies versus China – but it is.”
Green argues the PNG deal can be seen as “a win for the US for now”, after the signing of a security agreement between China and Solomon Islands last year sparked alarm in Washington and other capitals. He argues Beijing subsequently overplayed its hand in pushing for a wider regional security agreement with 10 Pacific countries. That push was rebuffed because leaders stressed the need to respect existing regional architecture, notably the Pacific Islands Forum.
But Green says it would be wrong for policymakers in the US to be complacent: “It can swing back at any moment and we may wake up with headlines saying China has a security deal with one of the countries of Pacific islands. So it’s game on.”