Ukraine conflict shows need for defence pact with U.S. - Papua New Guinea

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Papua New Guinea said it will sign a defence agreement with the United States, ahead of a deal with Australia and despite opposition party concerns it could upset China, because the Ukraine conflict shows the need for military capability.

On Monday, the Pacific island nation will host visits by United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, New Zealand's Chris Hipkins and other Pacific island leaders.

While Modi's visit is expected to focus on trade, Blinken will also sign a defence cooperation agreement (DCA) with PNG Prime Minister James Marape, the two nations have said.

The defence agreement would boost PNG's defence infrastructure and capability after decades of neglect, a PNG government statement said on Saturday.

Highlighting domestic political sensitivity over taking sides in the strategic competition between the United States and China, the statement said the deal would "not stop Papua New Guinea from working with other nations including China".

The defence agreement also will not give visiting U.S. military personnel immunity for criminal conduct, the statement said.

"Assets developed under DCA will be owned by PNG Government," it said.

PNG says the DCA is about building defence capabilities because border disputes are "inevitable in the future".

"Papua New Guinea does not have enemies but it pays to be prepared" it added, noting Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

China, a major infrastructure provider to the Pacific islands, has sought to increase its security role, signing a security pact with Solomon Islands that prompted criticism from the United States and its allies about Beijing's intentions.

A Chinese military delegation led by Song Yanchao, the deputy director of the People's Liberation Army's office for international military cooperation, visited PNG in March.

Marape and Fiji's Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabukua will raise investment, trade and climate change mitigation in their meetings with Blinken and Modi on Monday, the two leaders said in a statement on Sunday.

Marape said in a press conference on Friday that India and the Pacific had "common history - we come from the past of being ruled by colonial nations".

He hoped India could be an easier and faster partner for smaller nations to build trade and economic ties with, he said.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)