(WASHINGTON) — As Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with Papua New Guinea’s top leaders on Thursday, to build on a new defense cooperation agreement signed between the two countries in May, Austin stressed that the U.S. is not seeking permanent basing on the island — but to “make sure we strengthen PNG’s ability to defend itself and protect its interest.”
The cooperation agreement earlier this year highlights the strategic importance that the U.S. places on the island nation, which is located north of Australia and, like other nations in the South Pacific, has strong economic ties with China.
Austin is the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Papua New Guinea and his trip is an indication of the focus the U.S. is now placing on building relationships in the region in the wake of a security agreement that China worked out last year with the neighboring Solomon Islands.
“This is really about strengthening our ability to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific and protecting the rules-based international order, and we will remain focused on that,” Austin said of the defense agreement at a news conference Thursday in the capital of Port Moresby.
“We’ll continue to work with like-minded nations and nations who share our vision for that free and open Indo-Pacific,” Austin said. “Again, I think the [defense agreement] reflects our shared values and, again, the relationship is really about those values.”
The agreement, which is awaiting ratification by Papua New Guinea’s government, would last 15 years and would, officials say, reinforce ties between the militaries of both countries, increase training opportunities for Papua New Guinea’s defense force with U.S. troops, improve infrastructure for military facilities and help the U.S. support future humanitarian and disaster relief operations in the region.
While it does not call for a permanent American base, U.S. officials have said the deal could lead to a rotational military presence.
Prime Minister James Marape played down the notion that the agreement would heighten tensions with China, with whom Papua New Guinea has a strong economic relationship.
“They have no issue whatsoever with us signing with U.S., and they’re mindful of the fact that some shared values we have with U.S. that [are] not shared with other nations of the world and for defense cooperation,” Marape said Thursday.
“It is a deliberate choice of partnership we have with some nations,” he said. “We know the privilege in that space, but we will also likewise not compromise our relations with China and other nations … especially the government-to-government relations and business-to-business relations with them.”
He added that the relationship with China is strictly an economic one and that China has not made a request for a military relationship with Papua New Guinea.
Prior to his meeting with Austin, Marape told reporters that his country could work with both nations and that it did not have to pick one over the other.
“We respect our own relations with China in the context of the trade, economy, commerce and the peculiarity of our relations with China, but that will not compromise our relations with the U.S.A. — just like our relationship with U.S.A. will not compromise our relationship with China,” he said.
Austin, asked if the U.S. might send nuclear-capable vessels to Papua New Guinea’s ports in the future, said the U.S. would honor Papua New Guinea’s commitment as a nuclear-free zone
While Austin is the first defense secretary to visit Papua New Guinea, Marape noted that he is actually the second member of his family to visit the island: Austin’s father, also named Lloyd, had served in Papua New Guinea during World War II.
Following his stop in Papua New Guinea, Austin traveled to Brisbane, Australia, where he and Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet with their Australian counterparts.
The annual meetings have taken on a greater significance in recent years as the U.S. and Australia have developed closer security ties — including the rotational presence of up to 2,500 U.S. Marines for regular training exercises in northern Australia — to counter China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and provocations toward self-governing Taiwan, which China regards as a breakaway province.
Ahead of this week’s meetings, U.S. defense officials signaled an expansion of bilateral security agreements could lead to additional rotations in the Indo-Pacific region involving different military services and capabilities.
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