Biden to be first sitting US president to visit Papua New Guinea

Announcement comes as Washington has increasingly sought to shore up influence in the Pacific to counter China.

President Joe Biden, centre, poses for a photo with Pacific Island leaders on the North Portico of the White House in Washington, DC [File: Susan Walsh/AP Photo]

Joe Biden is set to become the first sitting United States president in history to visit Papua New Guinea, the White House has said, as Washington continues to shore up support among countries in the Pacific as part of a wider effort to counter Beijing.

Biden will travel to the country of approximately 9.4 million people later this month between visits to Japan for a Group of 7 (G7) meeting and to Australia, where he will hold talks with leaders of the so-called “Quad” grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the US.

During the stopover in Papua New Guinea, expected on May 22, Biden will meet with Prime Minister James Marape and other leaders of the Pacific Island Forum, a collection of 18 countries and territories that span 30 million sq km (10 million sq miles) of ocean.

“The leaders will discuss ways to deepen cooperation on challenges critical to the region and to the United States such as combating climate change, protecting maritime resources, and advancing resilient and inclusive economic growth,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement on Tuesday.

She added that the US “has deep historical and people-to-people ties with the Pacific Islands, and this visit – the first time a sitting US President has visited a Pacific Island country – further reinforces this critical partnership”.

Papua New Guinea has been negotiating security pacts with the US, and Biden’s visit could see the finalisation of a US-Papua New Guinea Defence Cooperation Agreement that would allow more joint training between the two nations and the development of security infrastructure.

In January, Papua New Guinea also announced it was concluding a new security treaty with close US ally Australia. The move came after both countries had expressed alarm about a security pact signed by China and the Solomon Islands in April that has led to fears of a Chinese military build-up in the South Pacific region.

A state-backed Chinese company has since won a contract to develop the international port in the Solomon Islands capital of Honiara.

Papua New Guinea also has been courted by Beijing; Marape has been invited to the Chinese capital later this year, while Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the country in 2018.

For its part, the US last year hosted the first ever US-Pacific Island summit in Washington, DC, an event attended by Marape and other Pacific Island Forum leaders. The Biden administration has also sought to re-up security agreements with an array of Pacific island nations.

Most recently, a US official said Washington was on track to open a new embassy in Tonga in May. The US has also re-opened its embassy in the Solomon Islands and has said it also plans to open an embassy in Vanuatu.

Still, US special envoy Joseph Yun, speaking to the Hudson Institute last month, said the US was playing “catch-up” after years of relative neglect during which China’s influence soared across the South Pacific.

“Let’s face it, it is strategic competition between China and us,” he said. “Have we neglected the Pacific? The answer is yes … We are trying to correct that quite a bit.”

The relationship between Washington and Beijing has seen growing tensions in the past few years as the US prioritised strategic competition with China in its foreign policy under former President Donald Trump, a position fully embraced by Biden.

The US Congress also has sought to tackle China’s growing influence.

Last week, the Senate launched their latest legislative effort, including a bill top Democrats said aims to limit the flow of technology to Beijing, deter China from initiating a conflict with Taiwan, and tighten rules to block US capital from going to Chinese firms.

But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that while Washington is in competition with Beijing, the Biden administration is seeking to maintain open lines of communication with its Chinese counterparts.

“We’re in a competition with China; there’s no secret about that. But we have a strong interest in trying to make sure that that competition doesn’t veer into conflict,” Blinken said on May 3.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies