US Secretary Blinken Visits PNG, Shaping Australia-China Military Dynamics in the Pacific

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to visit Papua New Guinea (PNG) next week, highlighting the significance the United States places on Pacific Island leaders and, specifically, PNG in its competition for influence, particularly against China. President Joe Biden was originally scheduled to make the trip but had to cancel, emphasizing the importance of the visit. Mr. Blinken’s visit will include meetings with Pacific Island leaders in Port Moresby on Monday.

PNG’s Prime Minister James Marape has confirmed that a defence cooperation agreement with the US is still being worked on and is expected to be signed next week. Once signed, the agreement will be presented to Parliament for scrutiny. The defence cooperation agreement entails various aspects, including arrangements for US Coast Guard vessels to patrol PNG’s vast exclusive economic zone and access to US satellite surveillance for the region. Additionally, an umbrella agreement, similar to what Australia signed with Japan and Fiji, allowing the military forces of both nations to train and operate together, is also anticipated.

This visit and potential agreement between PNG and the US align with Australia’s defence strategic review launched last month. The review emphasized the need for increased partnerships with allies and friends due to the heightened risk of conflict in Australia’s neighbourhood. Consequently, Australia has been seeking greater military cooperation, training, and interoperability with the US and Pacific partners. Agreements have already been reached with Fiji, and while an agreement with Vanuatu awaits ratification by its Parliament, it is indicative of a broader pattern.

The PNG-US pact might have implications for Australia, but it is important to note that concerns have been raised about similar agreements in the past, including the one signed between Australia and Vanuatu. Prime Minister Marape has assured that the agreement has been reviewed by the government solicitor and is constitutional. The framework agreement is expected to be signed without parliamentary ratification, but there could be more debate in Parliament regarding specific aspects related to future US investment in defence projects or infrastructure.

China, too, has been pursuing a presence in the Pacific, but the US maintains its historical military presence in the region, including during World War II. While China has not explicitly responded to the PNG-US pact, there have been lobbying efforts from China-backed groups promoting broader security roles for China in the Pacific, particularly among Melanesian countries like PNG, Vanuatu, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands. This lobbying is ongoing, indicating China’s continued interest in expanding its influence.

Furthermore, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also visiting Pacific leaders, focusing on economic ties, trade, and humanitarian assistance. India’s engagement with the Pacific aligns with the Quad’s agenda, a group comprising the US, India, Japan, and Australia, which emphasizes the need to cooperate collectively and individually with Pacific Island nations to balance out China’s influence. India’s potential economic aid could contribute to this objective.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to PNG highlights the US’s recognition of Pacific Island leaders and its competition with China for influence in the region. The defence cooperation agreement between PNG and the US, expected to be signed next week, holds potential implications for Australia’s defence partnerships. Additionally, China’s lobbying efforts and India’s engagement with Pacific Island nations reflect the ongoing contest for influence in the region among major powers.

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