May 22 (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken met Papua New Guinean President James Marapa on Monday ahead of a security deal and a meeting with 14 Pacific island leaders.
Earlier, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged support to the Pacific Islands at a summit in the capital Port Moresby.
Washington and its allies have sought to prevent Pacific island nations from forming security ties with China, a growing concern amid tensions over Taiwan.
Historians have said PNG and the Solomon Islands – which struck a security pact with Beijing last year – were vital to the US push across the Pacific to free the Philippines from World War II.
Leaders of the islands, which cover 40 million square kilometers (15 million square miles) of ocean, have said rising sea levels caused by climate change are their top conservation priority.
Blinken told Marape that they had signed very important agreements and that the US was deepening its partnership with PNG.
US President Joe Biden said he was “sorry not to be here”. Biden was forced to cancel his trip to PNG due to debt ceiling negotiations in Washington.
Modi told the 14 leaders of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation that India would be a reliable development partner for small island states and was committed to a “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific”.
He said in his opening remarks that we are ready to share our skills and experiences in the fields of digital technology, space technology, health care, food security, climate change and environmental protection without any doubt.
He added that the leaders of the Quad, Australia, the United States, Japan and India, had agreed in Hiroshima to increase cooperation with Pacific island nations.
In his inaugural address, Marabe urged India to think about small island states that “suffer as a result of the game of big nations”.
For example, Marab said Russia’s war with Ukraine has caused inflation and higher fuel and energy prices in the region’s smaller economies.
Modi held a bilateral meeting with Solomon Islands President Manasseh Sogavere, whose defense pact with China has worried Washington about Beijing’s intentions in the region.
Blinken is expected to sign a defense cooperation agreement between the US and PNG, and will also host a meeting of Pacific Island leaders later in the afternoon.
Several universities staged protests on campuses against the signing of the defense cooperation agreement, amid concerns that it would upset China. Marab has denied that PNG will stop working with China, an important trading partner.
The PNG government previously said the US defense deal was an extension of an existing deal that would boost PNG’s defense infrastructure and capacity after decades of neglect.
Marabe told media on Sunday that the defense deal would also increase US military presence over the next decade.
Washington will provide $45 million in new funding with PNG to strengthen economic and security cooperation, including the PNG security force, climate change mitigation and combating transnational crime and HIV/AIDS, the US State Department said.
Blinken visited a healthcare clinic where US funding is helping to fight HIV/AIDS by increasing access to testing and antiretroviral treatment.
Kirsty Needham in Sydney reports; Lincoln Feast Editing
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