The US has signed a security pact with Papua New Guinea despite concerns within the country about increasing militarisation as Washington competes with Beijing for influence in the Pacific.
The state department said the new agreement would provide $45m (£36m) to help improve security cooperation, including protective equipment for the Papua New Guinea defence force, plus help in mitigating the effects of the climate crisis, transnational crime and HIV/Aids.
A draft copy of the defence cooperation agreement leaked last week sparked concern in Papua New Guinea about the extent of American military involvement in the country, with reports it gives US personnel and contractors legal immunity; allows aircraft, vehicles and vessels operated by or on behalf of the US to move freely within its territory and territorial waters; and exempts US staff from all migration requirements.
Students at several universities have held protests against the signing of the agreement, amid concerns it will upset China.
Papua New Guinea’s prime minister, James Marape, on Monday denied that US staff would have legal immunity and said no amendments would be made to the constitution or laws.
Marape said the country faced significant security challenges. “I need to strengthen and protect my country’s borders and ensure the safety of my people,” he said. “So this has nothing to do with geopolitics; this cooperation will strengthen our defence and help build our capacity.
“And it is just an elevation of the Sofa [status of forces] agreement that is already in place, and this agreement will not stop us from signing other similar agreements with other countries, including China. We are free to sign defence cooperations with any country that shares our values and principles, and that may include our friends from the east or the west, including our longtime traditional friends Australia, US or even China.”
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, arrived in Papua New Guinea early on Monday, travelling in Joe Biden’s place after the US president was forced to cancel his plans to make a brief but historic stop there to sign the pact. Biden would have become the first sitting US president to visit a Pacific island, but he cancelled to focus on debt limit talks in Washington, prompting concerns about how reliable a partner the US is in the Pacific.
“The defence cooperation was drafted by the United States and Papua New Guinea as equals and sovereign partners,” Blinken said at the signing ceremony.
It would expand Papua New Guinea’s defence capabilities to enhance humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and make it easy for the US and Papua New Guinean forces to train together, Blinken said. “It will be fully transparent,” he added.
Marape said the agreement would boost economic security by giving Papua New Guinea’s defence force “the ability to know what is happening in its waters – something we have never had since 1975”.
Papua New Guinea also welcomed India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, on Monday. Marape hailed India as the “leader of the global south” and promised to rally behind it as Modi held a summit there with Pacific island leaders.
Modi told the 14 leaders of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation that India would be a reliable partner to small island states amid difficulties caused by supply chain disruptions and the climate crisis. India was committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific, he said. Earlier, Modi wrote on social media he had discussed “ways to augment cooperation in commerce, technology, healthcare and in addressing climate change” in a bilateral meeting with Marape on Monday.
Papua New Guinea’s location just north of Australia makes it strategically significant. It was the site of fierce battles during the second world war, and with a population of nearly 10 million people, is the most populous Pacific island nation.
However, many in the Pacific are concerned about the increasing militarisation of the region and that Papua New Guinea could be stuck between an increasingly hostile US and China. Civil society groups and student unions have raised concerns over the defence cooperation agreement, with talks of protests spreading online over the weekend.
The former prime minister Peter O’Neill accused Marape of placing the country “at the epicentre of a military storm between China and the USA by agreeing to enter into defence arrangements with both superpowers without consultation with our people”.
The opposition leader, Joseph Lelang, said last week: “We have a foreign policy of ‘friends to all and enemies to none’. We … should not be blinded by the dollar sign or be coerced into signing deals that may be detrimental to us in the long run.”
Marape said on Monday there would be an increased presence of US military personnel and contractors over the next two years but that a US military base would not be established.
Last year, the nearby Solomon Islands signed a security pact with China, a move that raised alarm throughout the Pacific. The US has increased its focus on the Pacific, opening embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga, reviving Peace Corps volunteer efforts, and encouraging more business investment.
In response to news of Blinken’s visit to Papua New Guinea, China warned against the introduction of “geopolitical games” to the region.
The New Zealand prime minister, Chris Hipkins, who met Marape on Monday morning and was also due to meet Blinken, welcomed greater US interest in the region but also drew a distinction with his own nation’s efforts.
“New Zealand doesn’t support militarisation of the Pacific. Having said that, a military presence doesn’t necessarily signify militarisation,” he said. “New Zealand has a military presence in the Pacific regularly following natural disasters … We shouldn’t assume that all military partnerships are necessarily about conflict.
“We are interested in working with the Pacific on issues where we have mutual interest. Issues around climate change. And we’re not going to be attaching military strings to that support.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report