Joe Biden is set to become the first sitting U.S president in at least a century to visit Papua New Guinea, Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko said Thursday, revealing plans for a brief but symbolic trip.
Biden plans to stop at Port Moresby in May as he travels between a G7 summit in Japan and a Quad summit in Sydney, Australia, the foreign minister said.
“He is coming on the 22 May, in the morning, and will be here for three hours only,” Tkatchenko said, adding that talks were expected to focus on the economy, security and climate change.
Biden’s trip may put the finishing touches on a U.S-Papua New Guinea Defence Cooperation Agreement that would allow more joint training and the development of security infrastructure.
The presidential trip is a nod toward Papua New Guinea’s rapidly growing strategic importance, as the United States and its allies tussle with China for influence across the Asia-Pacific.
Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Port Moresby in 2018 to much fanfare, with Chinese flags hoisted across the capital and his motorcade whizzing past gathered crowds.
The trip was seen as a major diplomatic coup for Beijing.
U.S and Australian officials have been concerned by a rapid uptick in Chinese investment in the resource-rich Melanesian nation.
There have also been concerns that China has been trying to establish a military outpost, prompting Washington to move toward establishing a joint naval facility at Lombrum on Manus Island.
Construction started in mid-2020, according to Australia’s Department of Defence, which is also taking part in the initiative.
Four Guardian-class patrol boats are eventually expected to be based at the facility.
A series of U.S secretaries of state have visited in the past, including Hillary Clinton and then U.S vice president Mike Pence in 2018, who stepped in when president Donald Trump cancelled his attendance at a regional summit.
According to State Department records, which date back to Theodore Roosevelt’s administration in 1901, no sitting .US president has visited Papua New Guinea.
But the importance of the region has come more sharply into focus since China and the Solomon Islands agreed on a security pact in 2022.
The details of the agreement have not been made public — at Beijing’s request — but a draft, seen by AFP, has provisions that would allow China to deploy troops to the country.
Washington and other capitals have expressed concern that Beijing could also establish a military outpost.
In March, a state-backed Chinese company won a contract to develop the international port in the capital
Honiara, a major victory in Beijing’s quest to gain a strategic toe-hold in the South Pacific.
The region could prove vital in any possible military conflagration over Taiwan.