PNG and UK sign defence agreement amidst China’s increasing influence

Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the United Kingdom (UK) have signed a defence agreement that has been “gathering dust for many years,” according to PNG Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko. The status of forces agreement, which establishes the rules for foreign military personnel operating in a country, was signed in Port Moresby on Wednesday by the foreign ministers of both nations. While neither country has released the text of the document, Tkatchenko stated that the agreement is broad in nature and that the UK military is already training with PNG’s defence forces.

Tkatchenko emphasized that the agreement is about strengthening and enhancing the defence relationship between the two countries, and that it will allow for easier cooperation on defence-related matters and training. PNG also signed a broad security and defence agreement with Australia earlier this year, and is currently negotiating a defence cooperation agreement with the United States. This comes in the context of the AUKUS agreement between the US, UK, and Australia to equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, widely seen as aimed at containing China.

China has become a significant source of trade, infrastructure, and aid for economically lagging Pacific island countries, including PNG, over the past several decades as it seeks to diplomatically isolate Taiwan and gain allies in international organizations. Last year, China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, which has alarmed the US and its allies, including Australia.

However, Pacific island nations also hope to benefit from renewed US interest in the region, though they face a balancing act as Washington and Beijing vie for influence. Tkatchenko stated that PNG stands fast with its traditional security partners in the region, including Australia, New Zealand, the US, and Indonesia. He also emphasized that China remains PNG’s traditional trading partner, and that PNG will continue to work with China while maintaining its security relationships with other countries.

UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, who is also visiting the Solomon Islands, stated that the defence agreement with PNG reflects mutual security interests and that the security of friends is the UK’s security. Cleverly acknowledged that the world is increasingly interconnected and faces security risks from various factors.

In addition to the defence agreement with the UK, PNG has also signed a status of forces agreement with France in November last year, with Tkatchenko expecting four visits from French warships in the next 12 months. Tkatchenko emphasized that the agreement with the UK was not a direct response to China, but rather a response to multiple security challenges in the region, including climate change, biosecurity, and defence.

The renewed focus of Western countries, including the UK, on the Pacific region, comes amid concerns over China’s increasing influence in the region. As countries in the Pacific navigate their relationships with both China and Western powers, the evolving geopolitical dynamics in the region are likely to continue to be a topic of interest and concern for global stakeholders.

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