U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit Papua New Guinea (PNG) in lieu of President Joe Biden, whose trip was canceled due to the United States debt limit talks, next week amid efforts to counter China’s rising influence in the Pacific.
Biden contacted PNG leader James Marape on May 18 to inform him that he had to return to Washington after the G7 summit in Japan to attend meetings with Congressional leaders on averting a potential default, the White House stated.
He told Marape that Blinken would attend the U.S.-Pacific Islands Forum summit in PNG’s capital Port Moresby on his behalf and reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the renewed partnership with Pacific island nations.
Biden also invited Marape to Washington for a second U.S.-Pacific summit later this year, during which they will discuss issues including trade and economic ties and maritime security.
His canceled trip, originally scheduled for May 22, would have marked the first by a sitting U.S. president to PNG. Biden also had to scrap a planned meeting with leaders of the Quad—which includes India, Australia, and Japan—in Sydney, Australia.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the Quad leaders would instead convene on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, this week.
“The blocking and the disruption that’s occurring in domestic politics in the United States, with the debt ceiling issue, means that, because that has to be solved prior to June 1—otherwise there are quite drastic consequences for the U.S. economy, which will flow on to the global economy—he understandably has had to make that decision,” Albanese said.
Biden has been negotiating with top Republicans and Democrats to secure Congressional authorization to raise the federal government’s $31.4 trillion debt ceiling and avoid default before the end of May.
US-Papua New Guinea Ties
The State Department said Blinken would visit PNG from May 21 to 22 for talks with Pacific Islands Forum leaders on cooperation in addressing climate issues and advancing inclusive economic growth in the region.
It’s unclear whether Blinken will discuss the U.S.-PNG Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) during his visit. In February, PNG sent a delegation to Honolulu for talks with U.S. officials to establish a “mutual understanding of core issues” regarding the DCA.
Washington said the DCA would serve as the foundational framework for enhancing security cooperation and bilateral relationship, including boosting the capacity of the PNG Defense Force and maintaining security in the Pacific region, once the agreement is finalized and signed.
The United States has sought to boost its engagement in the Pacific region after Beijing signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands last year, which many countries in the region fear could allow Beijing to station troops, weapons, and naval ships on the strategically important island.
Former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last year that PNG has faced similar “pressure” from Beijing to consent to a security agreement like the Solomon Islands.
“Do you think there’s not the same pressure going on in Papua New Guinea that there is in the Solomon Islands? Of course there is. That is happening in all of those countries,” Morrison told reporters.
Beijing has previously shown interest in the PNG autonomous region of Bougainville, reportedly offering US$1 billion in infrastructure investment that would come under its Belt and Road Initiative. Bougainville is on course to achieve independence from PNG by 2027.
In February 2021, a leaked document revealed plans by a Hong Kong-based company WYW Holding Limited to transform PNG’s Daru Island, which is located close to Australia, into an industrial, seaport, and commercial zone. But Marape’s government denied getting the proposal, according to multiple reports.
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