WASHINGTON: The White House confirmed on Tuesday (May 9) that Joe Biden will visit Papua New Guinea in May, a “historic” first trip for a sitting US president, as Washington vies with Beijing for influence in the region.
Biden will also meet with Pacific Island leaders as he seeks to deepen cooperation on issues “such as combating climate change, protecting maritime resources, and advancing resilient and inclusive economic growth,” the White House said in a statement.
The trip will come as Biden travels from the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan to the Quad Leaders’ summit in Sydney, Australia later this month.
The South Pacific was seen as a relative diplomatic backwater after World War II, but it is an increasingly important arena for powers to compete for commercial, political and military influence – and could prove vital in any possible military conflagration over Taiwan.
Last month, Papua New Guinea Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko told a news conference Biden would attend bilateral talks with his hosts and is “also having a meeting with the 18 Pacific Island leaders”.
The Pacific Island Forum is a regional bloc of mostly small states scattered across the vast swath of ocean.
The prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand will also attend.
Last month, US special envoy Joseph Yun said the United States was playing “catch-up” after years of relative neglect in which China’s influence soared across the South Pacific.
“Let’s face it, it is strategic competition between China and us,” he told the Hudson Institute.
“Have we neglected the Pacific? The answer is yes … We are trying to correct that quite a bit.”
China recently signed a secretive security pact with Solomon Islands, east of Papua New Guinea, that could allow Chinese troops to be deployed or based there.
And a state-backed Chinese company won a contract in March to develop the international port in the capital Honiara, a major victory in Beijing’s quest to gain a strategic toehold in the South Pacific.
Biden’s trip may also put the finishing touches on a US-Papua New Guinea Defence Cooperation Agreement that would allow more joint training and the development of security infrastructure.
Washington is working to establish a joint naval facility at Lombrum on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.