India's Modi lands in Papua New Guinea to host senior leaders at forum for India-Pacific Islands cooperation

India's Modi lands in Papua New Guinea to host senior leaders at forum for India-Pacific Islands cooperation

Monday 22/05/2023
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi will host the third Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC).(ABC News: Tim Swanston )

Even by Papua New Guinea's standards, it has been a madcap fortnight.

Just as the world turned its eyes to the Pacific nation for a historic US presidential visit, things suddenly started to fall off the rails.

As preparations entered their final frantic stages for Joe Biden's arrival, PNG's Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko — the man charged with coordinating the formidable logistics for the president's entourage — was forced to step aside after labelling critics of his daughter's social media videos "primitive animals".

Things only got more chaotic after that.

Early last week, a draft of a highly anticipated Defence Cooperation Agreement between the United States and PNG was leaked to multiple media outlets by an anonymous source.

The draft text stoked political controversy both at home and abroad.

Some Western officials blamed China for the leak, while in Papua New Guinea the opposition accused Prime Minister James Marape's government of gutting the nation's long tradition of strategic independence and undermining its constitution in return for US investment in the country's ports and critical infrastructure.

And then, finally, Mr Biden cancelled his visit to both PNG and Australia, declaring he had to return home after the G7 to wrestle with Congressional Republicans to strike a deal over the looming US debt ceiling and avoid a default that would plunge the world economy into chaos.

The mayhem was neatly captured in a moment late last week when Mr Marape had to walk out halfway through a press conference to take a call from the president — only to return shortly after to confirm US Secretary of State Antony Blinken would come to Port Moresby in Mr Biden's place.

It has been a political and diplomatic rollercoaster.

But despite the drama, Port Moresby will today still host a bevy of senior leaders from across the region and beyond.

And many of the same outcomes forecast just a few weeks ago may still — in theory — come to pass.

Indian PM to meet with Pacific leaders

With all the publicity over Mr Biden's on-and-off-again visit, you'd be forgiven for missing the news that another significant world leader will hold court in Papua New Guinea today.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in Port Moresby last night and on Monday will host the third Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC), which brings together leaders and top officials from New Delhi and 14 Pacific island nations.

It's another clear sign that China is not the only emerging great power intent on building its influence across the Pacific.

As India's strength grows, it too wants to build new trade, development and political links with Pacific island countries: particularly larger nations in the region like PNG.

There are broad parallels here — both PNG and India are developing countries, and share fraught colonial histories which shape their priorities and outlook.

And there will be a host of issues on the agenda including development, climate change, food and energy security, with various MOUs to be signed to foster cooperation between the two countries.

Officials across multiple capitals, from Beijing to Washington and Canberra to Tokyo, will be watching what happens very closely.

US-PNG defence agreement signing

The gathering of Pacific leaders for FIPIC effectively opened up a "two bird, one stone" opportunity for Mr Biden.

The US president was only planning to spend a few hours in Port Moresby, but would have been able to use that time to both hold a bilateral meeting and sign agreements with PNG, while also meeting a host of Pacific leaders already in town.

Now, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will fill in for the president. It's expected two key agreements will still be signed this afternoon: a shiprider agreement and a defence cooperation agreement (DCA).

The DCA has been described by Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) chief Mark Goina as the "key to doing more with the US".

"[The US] don't want to come in and do little things, they want to come in and do big things," he told the ABC earlier this month.

"Obviously, with this wider and bigger scope that we are going to sign with the US defence cooperation agreement, we will see a lot more US presence in terms of exercises, training, as well as them coming in in areas where the defence force needs assistance."

The leaked draft of the DCA also suggests it might open the door to a substantial US military presence in the country, as well as potentially offering American personnel in PNG some protection from prosecution in the Pacific Island country.

Neither of these things is unusual for US military agreements — Washington has long said that its personnel should face justice through its own military court system if they break the law, either at home or abroad.

And Papua New Guinea has made it clear it will still need to green-light any move from the United States to move more people or military assets into the country in the future.

But it's still a clear signal that America is eyeing a much bigger defence presence in PNG and that Port Moresby — at least for now — appears willing to play along.

And this could represent a shift for PNG, which has long guarded its strategic independence and remains a member of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Any suggestion of US personnel being offered legal protections could be particularly contentious in Papua New Guinea, particularly given Australia's bid to shield police personnel from prosecution was overturned by the country's Supreme Court in 2005.

On Saturday, PNG's Secretary for Foreign Affairs Elias Wohengu insisted that no immunity was being offered in the agreement.

"If a crime is committed, punishment will be carried out," he told reporters in Port Moresby.

PNG's Prime Minister James Marape also tried to hose down the controversy over the weekend, repeating that there would be "no immunity for criminal conduct of visiting US forces" and declaring that "all assets developed under this agreement would be owned by the PNG Defence Force".

"All US planes and ships in PNG will have our soldiers on deck in operations. The DCA does not stop us from working with all other nations, including China, and this DCA respects our principle and core foreign policy of 'friends to all, enemies to none'," he said.

Meanwhile, the second agreement being signed, a Shiprider Agreement, is aimed at building PNG's capacity to tackle illegal fishing and transnational crime, with the US Coast Guard expected to bolster the country's ability to remain at sea for longer.

These agreements might be a first step, but there's no question where the Biden administration wants to head.

And if both are signed on Monday, then it could signal a shift in the broader contest for power and strategic position throughout the wide expanse of the Pacific.

Paul Barker, the director of PNG independent think-tank Institute of National Affairs, told the ABC that the United States — like other major countries — had "upped their game and attention" in the region, presenting Pacific Island nations with both opportunities and pitfalls.

"South Pacific countries … don't want to be caught as the meat in the sandwich as it were, but they also do like the extra attention in terms of extra opportunities, trading opportunities, development assistance," he said.

"But they're also nervous about it, and they want to be able to spend their time to determine their own positions and not to have those positions determined from outside or to be unduly pressured."

Story By: Papua New Guinea correspondent Tim Swanston and foreign affairs reporter Stephen Dziedzic

Original Story link:

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