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Papua New Guinea's security deal with the US is a win for Washington – for now. Papua New Guinea

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He may have recently signed a new defense cooperation deal with the United States, but Papua New Guinea’s prime minister was determined to make it clear that he is determined to make a binary choice between Washington and Beijing. Didn’t want to be forced.

Speaking after the deal was struck, James Marape reflected the Pacific leaders’ view that they should not be seen as mere chess pieces in a wider geopolitical struggle, as China and the US expand their influence among Pacific island nations. Let’s step up our efforts to do so. For Pacific countries, their priorities lie in their development needs and action on the climate crisis.

Marape was joined at the signing ceremony in Port Moresby by Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, who represented Joe Biden after the US president canceled the first meeting in a Pacific island country.

The US State Department argued that the agreement was only a “natural progression” after decades of defense cooperation with PNG, allowing the two countries to “enhance security cooperation” and improve the capability of the PNG defense force.

The State Department said the agreement would allow for “engagement in support of bilateral and multilateral exercises and regional capacity-building priorities”. It would also enable the US “to be more responsive in emergency situations such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief”.

Marape apparently wanted to take the opportunity to address some domestic concerns about the new US agreement, the full text of which is expected to be released publicly soon. Those domestic concerns were highlighted by the opposition leader, Joseph Lelang, who said last week: “We do not have a foreign policy of ‘friend to all and enemy to none’. We must … not be blinded by the dollar sign. We should not be asked or coerced into signing deals that may be harmful to us in the long run.

James Marape, Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, leaders of the Pacific Islands and representatives of New Zealand and Australia pose for photographs Photograph: Andrew Cooton/AFP/Getty Images

They were further underscored by protests at several universities on Monday.

But Marpe said the deal was the culmination of “many years and months of engagement” with US officials and “it was not shoved down our throats”.

The agreement, he said, was a mutual one driven by “the need for Papua New Guinea to step up, assist, support our defense force”. It was not a treaty-level document; This means that there are no mutual defense obligations.

Marpe was also at pains to say that any American personnel would “come at the invitation of our defense force, not of their own free will”. Extending his message to his fellow Pacific leaders, he said: “It is something that must be clear [to] Everyone in the Pacific – at our invitation, they come in.”

The parties also signed a second agreement to combat threats such as illegal fishing and drug trafficking, in which PNG was able to participate in the US Coast Guard. shiprider program,

Interestingly, the PNG government maintains that nothing in the deals will prevent the country from deepening its cooperation with other countries, including China. It also comes at a time when Australia is looking to negotiate its bilateral security treaty with Papua New Guinea.

The Australian government says it is still on track for a mid-year signature deadline. The Pacific minister, Pat Conroy, who was also in Port Moresby on Monday, said he was “confident we will be closed very soon”.

The Australia-PNG deal appears to be a broadly designed agreement that mirrors the BoE Declaration on Regional Security; 2018 statement that named the climate crisis as the greatest security threat to the Pacific region.

“It really shows the breadth of the BoE declaration, which states that security is not just about dynamic warfare, it’s about climate change, it’s about natural disasters, it’s about how countries interact with each other.” It’s about the right to live peacefully,” Conroy said on Monday. “So this is a comprehensive treaty and it is being negotiated in good spirit.”

Narendra Modi shaking hands with James Marape in Port Moresby Photograph: AP

Port Moresby had another important visitor on Monday: India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, who held talks with Pacific leaders at a stop on his way from Japan to Australia.

Modi addressed the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation and wanted to emphasize India’s credibility as a partner focused on practical cooperation including commerce, technology, health care and climate change. Marpe warmly welcomed Modi, describing him as a “leader of the global south”.

Against this backdrop, the US is racing to open embassies in the region, including the Solomon Islands, and renew agreements of free association with the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau.

Michael Green, chief executive of the Center for United States Studies at the University of Sydney and former senior US official, says: “The Pacific doesn’t want to be a source of competition between the US and its allies versus China – but it is.”

Green argues that the PNG deal can be seen as “a victory for the US for now” after the signing of a security pact between China and the Solomon Islands last year raised alarm in Washington and other capitals. Is. They argue that Beijing later played its part in pushing for a comprehensive regional security accord with 10 Pacific nations. That push was rejected as leaders emphasized the need to respect existing regional architecture, particularly the Pacific Islands Forum.

But Green says it would be wrong for policymakers in the US to be complacent: “It could backfire at any time and we could be in front of headlines saying China has a security agreement with one of the Pacific island nations Is. So this is the game.