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US, China vie for allies amid growing tensions in Pacific

William Yang in Taipei
May 24, 2023

The US is seeking to deter Pacific island nations from forming security ties with China. Analysts say Pacific countries are forced into a balancing act as they try to safeguard their own interests.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape
Washington signed a new bilateral defense cooperation agreement with Papua New Guinea (PNG) on MondayImage: Australian Broadcasting Corp./AP/picture alliance

The US has increased its engagement with several Pacific Island nations in recent weeks amid growing competition with China. Washington signed a new bilateral defense cooperation agreement with Papua New Guinea (PNG) on Monday.

"Geopolitical competition with China is one of the reasons the US has increased its engagement in the Pacific," said Parker Novak, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub.

The move sparked protests staged by civil society groups and several universities. However, the US insists the new agreement can help improve security cooperation between the two countries, enhance the defense capacity of Papua New Guinea's defense forces, and allow the US to be more responsive in emergency situations such as disaster relief. The deal would also allow US forces to access airfields and ports in PNG.

"We're deeply invested in the Indo-Pacific because our planet's future is being written here. Papua New Guinea is playing a critical role in shaping that future," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was in Port Moresby to sign the agreement, told journalists on Monday.

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister James Marape described the security pact as "mutually beneficial," and that the agreement would help the country to become "a robust economy" in the Pacific region.

He added that the deal is "not about geopolitics," and that it didn't restrict the PNG government from working with other countries, such as China.

He also said that PNG, the most populous Pacific Island nation with a population of nearly 10 million people, won't be used as a base for offensive military operations.

"There's a specific clause that says that this partnership is not a partnership for PNG to be used as a place for launching offensive military operations from Papua New Guinea," he told a local radio station on Tuesday.

The deal comes as the US and US allies like Australia try to increase their security engagement with Pacific Island nations after China signed a security pact with Solomon Islands last year.

“All 14 Pacific Island states have their own approach to foreign policy, but by dint of its size, PNG has a certain level of influence," said Maholopa Laveil, the FDC Pacific Fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia. According to Laveil, the deal will be coordinated with the security pact between Australia and Papua New Guinea, which is expected to be signed next month.

US spearheads Pacific race

In recent years, the Pacific region, which is made up of sparsely populated island nations, has become one of the hotspots for US-China competition due to its strategically important location. During World War II, PNG's location played a significant role in facilitating the US bombing of the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Apart from the Solomon Islands, countries in the region remain cautious about deepening security cooperation with Beijing. In January, Fiji canceled its police training and exchange agreement with China, citing differences in the two countries' systems as the main reason.

In addition, Beijing failed to complete a trade agreement with 10 Pacific Island nations last year.

Concerns over China-Solomon Islands deal

Laveil from the Lowy Institute adds that all 14 Pacific Island nations have "explicitly stated" that Australia — and by extension the West — is the region's security partner of choice.

The US, meanwhile, has also signed new strategic pacts with Palau and Micronesia, while it hopes to sign a similar deal with the Marshall Islands in the coming weeks.

However, Washington's efforts to shore up support in the Pacific were overshadowed by US President Joe Biden's decision to cancel his trip to the PNG due to the ongoing debt ceiling crisis in the US.

"Biden has indicated that he will visit the Pacific on a future date, and possibly that would be a longer stay on the ground," Laveil told DW.

'The US didn't help us with aid'

Laveil believes PNG PM Marape is trying to leverage the security threat from China to get more bilateral deals from Australia and the US, while using the promoted security ties with Canberra and Washington to get more out of China.

"Since its independence, PNG has adopted a 'friends to all' foreign policy approach, and it is trying to cultivate all these relationships without straining any of them," he said, adding that he thinks Marape plays the "balancing act" pretty well.

However, PNG's opposition leader Joseph Lelang remained concerned about the potential impact of signing the deal with the US. "We should not be blinded by the dollar sign or be coerced into signing deals that may be detrimental to us in the long run," he said last week.

Lelang's concerns have been echoed by other former and current Pacific country leaders, who said further militarization of the Pacific is not welcomed, according to Tess Newton Cain, a senior research fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.

"When agreements [like the one between the US and PNG] are signed, there is a concern [particularly among civil society] that this could lead to an increased militarization of the region," she said.

PNG student Naomi Kipoi, 17, said she was opposed to the US security pact because she felt it means the US could come to PNG whenever it pleased without permission, the Associated Press (AP) news agency reported. Kipoi said China had been a big help to PNG by building roads and funding schools.

"The US didn't help us with aid and other things," AP cited Kipoi as saying. "They're just trying to sign the agreement."

Joe Biden cancels Australia trip to address debt ceiling

Pacific nations defy 'transactional' relations

Amid the intensified competition for influence in the Pacific, countries in the region are looking to see whether major powers like the US and China have the ability to follow through on promises made at high-level summits.

"A number of announcements that were made by the US to Pacific Island countries came with the caveat that congressional agreement or funding would be needed," Cain told DW, adding that there is no guarantee that Washington can deliver those promises until they overcome domestic challenges.

Pacific Island countries also hope to establish more longstanding relationships with big countries that go beyond what they view as "transactional" relationships based on their geography.

"Pacific Island nations hope to forge deep, longstanding, multi-faceted relationships with big countries based on respect and reciprocity, rather than based on geostrategic hooks," she said.

"If that geostrategic moment was gone, or if the perceived China threat was not as obvious as now, would the Pacific still be able to count on these countries to be interested in what they have to say?" Cain added.

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum