Joe Biden, the US President will meet 18 leaders from the South Pacific when he visits Papua New Guinea in May, a top regional diplomat said Saturday, as the US and China vie for influence in the region.
After the end of World War II, the South Pacific was seen as a relative diplomatic backwater, but it is increasingly the arena for powers to compete for commercial, political, and military influence.
Papua New Guinea Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko said Biden would attend bilateral talks with his hosts and is “also having a meeting with the 18 Pacific Island leaders” from the Pacific Island Forum — a regional bloc of mostly small states that are scattered across the vast swathe of the ocean.
The prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand will be among those attending.
Biden is set to become the first sitting US president in at least a century to visit Papua New Guinea when he touches down on May 22.
He is also scheduled to attend a G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, and a summit of the Quad — Australia, India, Japan, and the United States — in Sydney.
US special envoy Joseph Yun this week said that the United States was playing “catch-up” after years of relative neglect that saw China’s influence soar across the South Pacific.
China recently signed a secretive security pact with the Solomon Islands that could allow Chinese troops to be deployed or based there.
In March, a state-backed Chinese company won a contract to develop the international port in the capital Honiara, a major victory in Beijing’s quest to gain a strategic toe-hold in the South Pacific.
The region could prove vital in any possible military conflagration over Taiwan.
We need to accelerate our catch-up. Any high-level engagement is welcome. Let’s face it, it is strategic competition between China and us.”
Yun told the Hudson Institute-speaking before Biden’s Pacific meeting was confirmed.
Biden’s trip may also put the finishing touches on a US-Papua New Guinea Defense 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.
Construction started in mid-2020, according to Australia’s Department of Defense, which is also taking part in the initiative. Four Guardian-class patrol boats are eventually expected to be based at the facility.