Joe Biden was scheduled to visit the strategic island of Papua New Guinea (PNG) this week. It was to be the first visit by a sitting United States president to a Pacific island country. The trip was finally suspended due to the problems faced by the US Congress over the debt ceiling, but it does not diminish the importance of the maritime security and surveillance pact that Washington is going to sign with Papua New Guinea, which implies, among other things , the transfer of 45 million dollars in terms of security cooperation to reinforce the national Armed Forces.
Papua New Guinea’s location north of Australia is strategic for China and the US. This territory disputed by the European powers at the end of the 19th century in the midst of the imperialist race was the scene of bloody battles during the Second World War. For American strategists, Papua’s geographical position makes it a key part of the so-called “island chain” that links it to Tokyo, Saipan (the largest island of the US insular Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands) and Guam. This chain constitutes the so-called great spearhead of the US against China.
The draft agreement provides for an increase in civilian and military personnel in the country. It also grants legal immunity to American officials and US contractors to move freely within its territory and territorial waters. The local government has denied that the Pentagon is going to open a military base, but the message is clear. The US wants to incorporate Papua New Guinea into its defensive shield. In recent decades, the US has deployed what journalist John Pilger has defined as the “perfect rope” with some 400 military bases around China in a strategy to contain the Asian giant.
The Prime Minister of PNG, James Marape, has said that this agreement responds to the need to protect the country, but sectors such as unions and university students have protested because they consider that this agreement with Washington could anger China and leave the country anchored in the North American orbit losing neutrality. And they are not wrong. Beijing does not seem comfortable with the pact and in the last hours the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wang Wenbin“, has warned that Beijing opposes any “geopolitical game in the Pacific island region”, in a clear warning to the move by the Biden administration to secure support from Papua New Guinea.
In recent months, Vice President Kamala Harris visited PNG as a sign of recognition of the little diplomatic attention the US has paid to the Pacific island countries. But the expansionism of China and the consolidation of this region as a key theater of the new cold war between Beijing and Washington has revitalized the interest of any territory that can serve to stop the Chinese advance in the region, within the Indo-Indian Strategy. US Pacific.
After the vacuum left by Washington for decades in this area, China has extended its diplomacy through greater cooperation in aid, development and security, which has generated suspicion between New Zealand and Australia, North American allies, after the security pact signed last year between China and the Solomon Islands, which could allow the presence of Chinese warships and security forces. In response, the United States has increased its focus on the Pacific with the opening of embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga.
The security agreement with PNG marks a new chapter in the growing tension between the United States and China in the region. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Chris Hipkins, has assured this Monday that this pact “will not militarize the Indo-Pacific region.” “New Zealand does not support the militarization of the Pacific. That being said, a military presence does not necessarily mean militarization,” said the New Zealand Prime Minister. UNSW professor David Kilcullen told Reuters that “a US-China conflict could play out across the Pacific, including Melanesia and the Polynesian islands, not just in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. , which puts Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands in the spotlight.”
Australia currently has access to the Lombrum naval base on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island thanks to a memorandum of understanding signed between the two countries in 2019, which aims to rebuild the military facility and increase interoperability between defense forces. of the two neighboring countries.
Papua New Guinea is hosting five presidents and ten prime ministers on Monday, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who will be in the country for the India-Pacific Forum in Port Moresby. In the coming days, Australia will host the meeting of the Quad partners, a military security forum encouraged years ago by the United States that hosts India, Japan and Australia. The latter country is also part of AUKUS, a defensive alliance promoted by Washington and London to counteract Beijing’s military and diplomatic influence.