May 22 (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Papua New Guinea’s leader James Marape on Monday ahead of the expected signing of a defence agreement and a meeting with 14 Pacific Island leaders.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi had earlier pledged support for the Pacific Islands at a summit in the capital Port Moresby.
Washington and its allies are seeking to deter Pacific Island nations from forming security ties with China, a rising concern amid tensions over Taiwan.
Historians have said PNG and the Solomon Islands – which last year struck a security pact with Beijing – were essential to the U.S. drive across the Pacific to liberate the Philippines in World War Two.
Leaders of the islands, which span 40 million square kilometres (15 million square miles) of ocean, have said rising sea levels caused by climate change is their most pressing security priority.
Blinken told Marape they were signing very important agreements and the United States would deepen its partnership across the board with PNG.
United States President Joe Biden sent “his regret that he was not able to be here”, he added. Biden was forced to cancel his travel to PNG due to debt ceiling negotiations in Washington.
Modi told the 14 leaders of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation that India would be a reliable development partner to small island states, and was committed to a “free, open and inclusive Indo Pacific”.
“Without any doubt we are willing to share our capabilities and experiences in digital technology, space technology, health security, food security, climate change and environment protection,” he said in opening remarks.
The Quad leaders, of Australia, United States, Japan and India, had agreed in Hiroshima to increase cooperation with Pacific Island countries, he added.
In his opening remarks, Marape urged India to think of small island states who “suffer as a result of big nations at play”.
Marape said Russia’s war with Ukraine, for instance, had caused inflation and high fuel and power prices in the region’s small economies.
Modi held a bilateral meeting with Solomon Islands leader Manasseh Sogavare, whose security deal with China prompted concern from Washington over Beijing’s intentions in the region.
Blinken is expected to sign a Defence Cooperation Agreement between the United States and PNG, and also hold a Pacific Island leaders meeting in the afternoon.
Several universities held protests at campuses against the signing of the Defence Cooperation Agreement, amid concern it would upset China. Marape has denied it would stop PNG working with China, an important trade partner.
The U.S. defence agreement was an extension of an existing agreement that would boost PNG’s defence infrastructure and capability after decades of neglect, the PNG government said earlier.
Marape told media on Sunday the defence agreement would also see an increase in the U.S. military presence over the next decade.
Washington would provide $45 million in new funds as it partnered with PNG to strengthen economic and security cooperation, including protective equipment for the PNG defence force, climate change mitigation and tackling transnational crime and HIV/AIDS, the U.S. State Department said.
Blinken visited a healthcare clinic where U.S. funding is helping to boost testing and access to antiretroviral therapy, to combat HIV/AIDS.
Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney; Editing by Lincoln Feast
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