US Secretary of State Visits PNG Amidst Student Strikes over Defense Cooperation Agreement – US PNG Treaty

In a time of heightened tensions, the Secretary of State of the United States visited Papua New Guinea (PNG) to discuss a defence cooperation agreement. However, the visit was met with protests from students at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) who have raised concerns about the potential environmental impact and resource distribution imbalances associated with the agreement.

The students have petitioned the government to provide proper awareness and explanation of the soon-to-be-signed defence cooperation agreement with the United States. Among their concerns, the students highlight the potential environmental consequences and a perceived imbalance in resource distribution. They strongly oppose the signing of the agreement and have warned of potential social and civil unrest.

Rainbow Paita, the Minister for Finance and Planning, received the petition on behalf of the government and explained to the students that the agreement is a framework agreement, not a treaty. He clarified that it outlines principles of mutual understanding, mutual training, and mutual extension programs, emphasizing that the details and specific principles are yet to be determined. Minister Paita sought to assure the students that the agreement would not infringe upon the country’s laws or require any legislative changes.

This report follows the recent disclosure of a draft copy of the agreement, obtained by RNZ Pacific, which outlines the terms and conditions for preferential access to various seas and airports in PNG. The document stipulates that US forces’ aircraft, vehicles, and vessels may freely enter, exit, and move within the territory and territorial waters of Papua New Guinea. The draft agreement also states that these assets shall be free from boarding and inspection without the consent of the United States.

The facilities in PNG that the United States seeks access to include Lae Nadzab Airport, Lae Seaport, Lombrum Naval Base, Momote Airport on Los Negros Island in the Admiralty Islands, Jackson International Airport in the capital, and the Port Moresby Seaport.

In a statement, former Prime Minister Peter O’Neill expressed concerns about the agreement, arguing that it has positioned Papua New Guinea at the centre of a military storm between China and the USA. O’Neill cited previous political blunders, such as a controversial visit from the Chinese foreign minister during the national general elections and announcements of support from China, which have raised concerns about PNG’s strategic positioning in the region.

Prime Minister James Marape clarified that the proposed defence cooperation agreement is still a work in progress and has not yet been approved by the cabinet. He stressed that PNG has maintained relationships with various international military forces, including the USA, Australia, New Zealand, France, and the United Kingdom, under the umbrella agreement known as the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) of 1989. Marape assured the public that any new specific agreement with the United States would not violate the country’s laws or necessitate changes to its legal framework..

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