China raises concerns over Australia-Papua New Guinea security agreement as Pacific nations face balancing act amid US-China competition

China has raised concerns about a proposed security agreement between Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG), according to PNG’s foreign minister. The proposed agreement aims to cover a wide range of security areas from policing to biosecurity, and negotiations are expected to conclude by the end of April. Australia is PNG’s largest donor, and the two nations have long-standing ties.

PNG Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko stated that during his official visit to China seeking development assistance for his nation, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang expressed concerns over the potential treaty with Australia and its intended purposes. He sought reassurances that the treaty would not counter China’s influence in PNG and the Pacific.

China has become a significant source of trade, infrastructure, and aid for economically lagging Pacific island countries in recent decades, seeking to diplomatically isolate Taiwan and gain allies in international organizations. Beijing signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands last year, which alarmed the United States and its allies such as Australia.

Pacific island countries face a balancing act as China and the US compete for regional influence. While China provides aid, trade, and infrastructure to the region, some leaders have expressed concerns about being swept up in superpower competition or forced to take sides in the Sino-American rivalry.

Tkatchenko explained to China’s foreign minister that the proposed security agreement with Australia was not only about defence but would cover a range of security areas from policing to biosecurity. He also asserted that PNG’s recent decision to close its Taiwan trade office was due to a need to cut costs rather than geopolitics.

The proposed security agreement between Australia and PNG is expected to focus on building PNG’s capacity and capabilities to face external and internal security challenges. The agreement is not solely a defence agreement between the two nations.

China’s concerns about the agreement for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines next decade under the AUKUS security pact with the United Kingdom and the United States were also mentioned by Qin. AUKUS is widely understood to be part of the US’s efforts to contain China, which is now a rival to the US in economic power and rapidly building up its military arsenal.

Qin compared the alliance to a typical Cold War mentality, which goes against the aims of nuclear nonproliferation and the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone created by the 1986 Rarotonga Treaty. Tkatchenko, however, explained Papua New Guinea’s strong support for the Pacific being a nuclear-free zone.

While China bankrolled PNG’s hosting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in 2018, Beijing’s promise to help Papua New Guinea build hundreds of kilometres of roads has not materialized. Tkatchenko said Qin reassured him of China’s ongoing support for PNG projects it is involved in, including rebuilding police barracks in Port Moresby and maintaining the international convention centre, which was built for the APEC meeting.

China and Papua New Guinea will renew discussion on the possibility of direct flights between Port Moresby and Shanghai, according to Tkatchenko. The two nations hope to maintain their bilateral relationship while navigating the competing interests of larger nations in the region.

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