Leaders meet in PNG with defence pacts in limelight

·3-min read

Papua New Guinea's prime minister has warned against trapping the nation in a power struggle as the United States and Australia push for new defence pacts.

James Marape said the Pacific island nation suffered "as a result of big nations at play in terms of geopolitical and power struggles".

Australian Pacific Minister Pat Conroy and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken landed in the capital Port Moresby on Monday as the nation prepares to sign defence pacts with Washington and Canberra.

The US-pact stirred concern among PNG opposition politicians who feared it could jeopardise the country's "friends to all, enemies to none" foreign policy by giving America a military foothold.

Local university students also protested, calling for more transparency about what the pact would mean for the island nation.

Mr Marape had worked to quell concerns saying a framework pact would be signed on Monday and "how we deal with boots on the ground, how we deal with contractors on the ground" would be worked on.

The US State Department said the full text of the defence co-operation agreement is expected to be made public after it enters into force, in accordance with domestic laws.

Australia is also negotiating its own defence agreement with Port Moresby.

Talks were scheduled to be wrapped up in April with the pact signed in June.

Progress has been made in recent weeks but a final agreement is yet to be reached.

Mr Conroy said negotiations were going well and he was hopeful a deal would be struck soon.

"It's a broad treaty and it's being negotiated in good spirit, and I'm confident that we will reach closure quite soon," he told ABC News from Port Moresby.

The minister said he hadn't seen the full details of the American defence pact but noted it was an extension of an agreement that had been in place since 1989.

"What they do with the United States is a matter for them, but we've got a record of working with Papua New Guinea," he said.

"There are (Australian Defence Force) personnel embedded over here in Papua New Guinea and we're negotiating a bilateral security treaty right now."

Mr Conroy said his priority was to listen to the views of local leaders and that his visit reflected Australia's deep commitment to the region.

The minister also announced $6.6 million to improve monitoring and managing coral reefs for island communities.

India is also working to boost its relationships and influence in the Pacific, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi stopping off in Port Moresby on his way to Australia for bilateral meetings.

Welcoming the Indian prime minister to Port Moresby, Mr Marape said New Delhi could act as a conduit between the Pacific and advanced economies on economic and geopolitical matters.

He said India and Pacific island nations had a shared history of colonisation and faced development challenges after resources were harvested and people left behind.

"We are victims of global power plays and we want you to be an advocate for us," he said.