China’s top diplomat pushed for Papua New Guinea to sign a policing agreement with Beijing during a trip to Port Moresby last month, forcing Australian and PNG officials to scramble to prevent an embarrassment for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese before his visit to our closest neighbour.

The revelation about the proposed policing deal – which PNG officials say has been shelved but not killed off – highlights Beijing’s ongoing determination to gain a security footing in the Pacific and the intense struggle for geopolitical influence playing out in the region.

Chinese officials and representatives from the PNG federal police constabulary worked through the details of a policing agreement during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s trip to Port Moresby last month, which alarmed Australian officials when they learnt of the possible pact.

Wang’s trip ended just a day before Albanese arrived in Port Moresby for a high-profile visit, during which he spent two days walking the Kokoda Track with PNG Prime Minister James Marape, in the lead-up to Anzac Day.

Eager to avoid causing offence to Albanese before his visit, Marape and PNG Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko intervened in the policing deal with China to ensure it was put on ice despite Wang’s energetic efforts to finalise an agreement.

“The Chinese are unrelenting on this,” said an Australian official familiar with the negotiations but not authorised to speak publicly.

The source said Australian officials “pulled out all the stops” to ensure the agreement was not signed during Wang’s visit.

Pacific Minister Pat Conroy has argued “there is no role for China in policing, or broader security, in the Pacific”, and that such matters should be handled by Pacific nations including Australia.

A PNG official said Marape and Justin Tkatchenko were determined not to derail Albanese’s trip, which included spending two nights camping in remote jungle villages, so they sent discussions on the policing pact back to lower-level officials for further workshopping.

“It hasn’t been put to rest; it has been shelved,” the PNG official said.

In a relief to Australian officials, Wang and Tkatchenko instead signed five memorandums of understanding relating to trade, disaster relief and information technology during the visit with no reference to policing or security.

Tkatchenko caused a stir when he revealed in January that China had approached PNG with an offer to assist its police force with training, equipment and surveillance technology.

Albanese at the time acknowledged leaders made their own decisions, but said he was determined to ensure Australia remains PNG’s “security partner of choice”.

Mihai Sora, the project director of the Australia-PNG network at the Lowy Institute and a former diplomat in the region, said he understood the draft policing deal with Beijing had “overwhelming support” within Marape’s cabinet.

“It’s remarkable Australia was able to deflect this at the last minute given the odds were stacked against it,” Sora said.

“China is looking for every opportunity to expand its role as a security actor in the Pacific and this will be an ongoing strategic challenge for Australia.”

In February, U.S Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Richard Verma urged PNG to turn down such an offer, saying that “the Chinese commitment in defence or investment comes with a high cost”.

The U.S later cautioned Pacific Islands against taking assistance from Chinese security forces after it was revealed that Chinese police were working in the remote atoll nation of Kiribati.

In December, Albanese and Marape signed a sweeping $200 million (US$132 million) security agreement to boost PNG’s policing and national security services.

This included $110 million (US$72 million) will to establish a new police recruit and investigations centre in Port Moresby, which was the scene of deadly riots in January.

The Chinese government last year tried to encompass 10 Pacific Island nations in a single, region-wide security treaty but was rebuffed and now seeks one-on-one deals with countries.

A senior government source, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, told this masthead earlier this year that Beijing was “incredibly active” in courting Pacific nations and had improved its strategy to gain a diplomatic foothold in the region through policing agreements.

“They’re learning from their mistakes and getting smarter at what they are doing,” the source said.

James Batley, Australia’s former top diplomat to Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste, said “China is clearly working hard to strike security and policing deals across the Pacific”.

“They are working to undermine our influence in the Pacific, and Western interests in general,” he said.

Australian officials were relieved last week when Manasseh Sogavare, who as Solomon Islands prime minister struck a controversial security agreement with Beijing, stepped down from power following national elections.

He was replaced by former foreign minister Jeremiah Manele, who is regarded as friendly to Beijing but less volatile and antagonistic to Australia than Sogavare.