Papua New Guinea and the United Kingdom signed a defence agreement that the Pacific island country’s foreign minister said had been “gathering dust for many years,” part of a renewed Western focus on the region after China’s inroads.
The status of forces agreement – a pact generally used by countries to establish the rules under which foreign military personnel operate in a country – was signed in Port Moresby on Wednesday by the foreign ministers of both nations. Neither country immediately released the text of the document.
Papua New Guinea Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko said the agreement is broad in nature and the United Kingdom’s military is already training with the Pacific country’s defense forces.
“It is about strengthening and enhancing our relationship when it comes to defense in our country,” he said. “UK and PNG working together for the security of the region. This will allow us to have an easier relationship when dealing with defence related matters, training and many other things.”
Papua New Guinea signed a broad security and defense agreement with Australia earlier this year and is negotiating a defence cooperation agreement with the United States. With the UK, the United States and Australia are the parties to the AUKUS agreement to equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines by next decade, which is widely understood to be aimed at containing China.
Over several decades, China has become a significant source of trade, infrastructure and aid for economically lagging Pacific island countries as it seeks to diplomatically isolate Taiwan and gain allies in international organisations.
Last year, Beijing signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, alarming the United States and its allies such as Australia.
Pacific island nations also hope to gain from renewed U.S interest in the region. However, they increasingly face a balancing act as Washington and Beijing vie for influence. Some Pacific leaders have said they don’t want to be swept up in superpower competition or to be forced to take sides in the China-U.S rivalry.
UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, who is also visiting the Solomon Islands on his Pacific trip, said the agreement with Papua New Guinea reflects mutual security interests.
“The security of friends is our security,” he said.
“The world is increasingly a small place and the risk to that security can come from anyone or a number of different factors and many things we have not even thought about yet.”
China is a top export market for Papua New Guinea, the most populous Pacific island country, and Beijing’s foreign minister earlier this month expressed concern about the Pacific country’s security agreement with Australia.
Tkatchenko said the agreement was not directly in response to China and is a response to multiple security challenges in the region from climate change to biosecurity and defense.
“I just want to make very clear that PNG stands fast with its traditional partners in the region: Australia, New Zealand, USA and Indonesia. They are traditional partners when it comes to security for our region,” he said.
“When it comes to China they are our traditional trading partners, the biggest that PNG has and we must respect that and continue to work with that.”
Papua New Guinea also signed a status of forces agreement with France in November last year.
Tkatchenko on Wednesday said he expects four visits in the next 12 months from French warships.
SOURCE: BENAR NEWS/PACNEWS