In May, President Joe Biden’s visit to the Pacific island state of Papua New Guinea (PNG) was cancelled owing to domestic political issues in the US taking pride of place, with the debt limit talks deepening the divide between the Republicans and Democrats. But the Biden administration was focused on displaying a critical show of strength in its foreign policy, particularly on the Indo-Pacific stage. What was supposed to be the first-ever state visit of a serving United States president led to much anticipation in PNG, including declaring the day a national holiday. But the cancellation of Biden’s visit underscored how the interstate system remains deeply divided between great powers and small states.
The cancellation also impacted the proposed Quad Summit scheduled to take place in Sydney, but the event was hurriedly rescheduled and held in Hiroshima, Japan, where President Biden was already present for the G7 meeting. While media reports focused on the cancellation, a visit to PNG did take place, but it was US Secretary of State Antony Blinken who travelled to the island state instead.
The focus on the US’ growing defence cooperation with the small island is the critical factor that emerges from the visit. Two agreements were signed: the New Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) and an Agreement Concerning Counter Illicit Transnational Maritime Activity Operations. This shows how major powers are shifting their priorities to gain greater access to the smaller states of the Indo-Pacific region. Over the past few years, the nature of the US-China rivalry has acquired sharper dimensions, and the geopolitical shifts in the Indo-Pacific region have played a critical role in shaping the regional matrix.
The signing of the two agreements is a significant push by the United States to unveil another facet of its strategic shift towards the Indo-Pacific region, thrusting the US-China rivalry into the most vulnerable part of the Pacific. The states in the South Pacific remain susceptible to the effects of this rivalry as their economic dependence is on the region’s bigger economies. Moreover, on issues such as climate change and medical and health infrastructure, they need to catch up with the other regional states in the Indo-Pacific, exposing their weaknesses in the face of concerted major power rivalry.
The two recent agreements have also led to several domestic tensions within PNG, especially in terms of the privileges that it affords to the United States, which is seen as hitting at the foundation of the country’s sovereignty. The political opposition within the country has been critical of the agreement, particularly because of two factors: First, there are allegations that the agreement provides US personnel legal immunity within the country. Second, that it allows unrestricted access to US vessels across the country and in the immediate territorial waters, thereby impacting the country’s sovereign rights vis-à-vis the already asymmetrical relations between the US and PNG.
However, PNG’s current leadership has defended the right of the country to enter into military cooperation, clearly alluding to the fact that the PNG already has an active Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that acts as the foundation on which the current Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) has been built. The US State Department also categorically reaffirms this position, stating that the current deal is based on the existing SOFA and will act as the foundation for the US and PNG to build future ties in the region.
One of the biggest advantages of this agreement is that for PNG, it brings in a massive amount of money—to the tune of nearly $45 million—to address some of the core non-traditional security challenges that Papua New Guinea faces. These include improving provisions for tackling climate change, dealing with transnational crimes and issues related to public health infrastructure.
The second agreement, highlighting the maritime part, will also bolster the island nation’s defences vis-à-vis issues like illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, a major menace in the region. Regarding illegal fishing, the most implicated countries are China and Taiwan, with the victims being regional states in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands.
PNG also has an expansive Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), nearly 2.4 million sq km, making this zone vulnerable to encroachments by neighbouring states. This vulnerability was exposed when Chinese ships exploring marine resources entered PNG’s EEZ in April 2019. This was just around the period when the United States and Australia had announced the decision to upgrade the existing infrastructure on Manus island, a geopolitically important area in terms of the power play in the region.
From around 2018, the presence of Chinese vessels in the EEZ of Micronesian states such as Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) has often occurred without respect for the tenets of international law in the maritime zones. These Chinese encroachments have been critical triggers that have also impacted how smaller island states are reassessing their priorities to employ clear hedging strategies and therefore derive the best outcomes vis-à-vis the major players. China’s foray into the South Pacific region also indicates the vulnerabilities of what has come to be called the ‘Second Island Chain’, which falls beyond the immediate scope of Chinese interests in the South China Sea. All this being said, the importance of Papua New Guinea is unlikely to wane: as one of Australia’s immediate northern neighbours, PNG will be seen as a crucial hub in any US-Australia strategy for ensuring regional stability in the Indo-Pacific.
Professor at School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi