India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited PNG’s capital, Port Moresby, in May 2023, where he was greeted by PNG’s Prime Minister, James Marape. PNG has received numerous diplomatic state visits this year, including US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkens, and Britain’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly. In July, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, French President Emmanuel Macron, and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin visited PNG.
Port Moresby’s harbor also received important navy vessels, including Japan’s largest JS Izumo, British & French naval-patrol vessels, two Indian warships, and an American coast-guard cutter. The unprecedented level of activity, high-level meetings, and signing of important agreements in PNG reflects the increasing significance of the largest nation in the southern Pacific region.
PNG, the largest country in the Southern Pacific region, is crucial for global shipping and military access to Australia due to its vast landmass of 600 offshore islands. A defence co-operation agreement between Blinken and Marape includes unimpeded access to military bases in Lae and Manus Island, two key locations on PNG’s northern coast. The US will help build and upgrade these bases, which represent important stepping-stones between Australia, Guam, and the Philippines. Biden’s Asia agenda focuses on building and thickening security and political agreements from Japan to Australia. The addition of PNG to the list of countries allows the US uninterrupted access to military bases along the entire Eastern Pacific, which could be leveraged in future conflicts with China.
PNG, a key commodity since its colonial days, is gaining importance due to its large deposits of minerals like nickel and copper, crucial for the green revolution. The country is also becoming a regional energy powerhouse, with improved liquefied natural gas (LNG) prospects. With a prime location to supply South-East Asia, international oil companies like ExxonMobil and Total Energies are keen to scale up LNG projects. The country’s energy independence is decreasing due to stagnating Indonesian natural gas production and the civil war in Myanmar. If PNG’s energy prospects improve, it will fuel the region’s LNG appetite.
Before PNG signed a defence agreement with the US, China had been making diplomatic inroads into the region, which has historically had strong ties with Australia and the US.
In 2019, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati shifted their recognition to China and cut relations with Taiwan. In 2022, they signed a security pact with China, allowing Chinese military personnel to use the islands’ ports. Australia, New Zealand, and the US have intensified their diplomatic presence in the region, with the US opening an embassy in Honiara.
However, China remains the country’s largest and preferred trading partner, and PNG is seeking to expand trade with the world’s second-largest economy while deepening military cooperation with the US. Chinese investments in PNG are boosting the country’s construction, telecoms, and energy industries, and are strategic for China to reduce its energy imports through the Strait of Malacca and diversify its LNG sources.
PNG, a country in the Pacific Ocean, is attracting international interest not only due to the US-China rivalry but also due to Middle Powers. India is positioning itself as an alternative to Washington and Beijing, particularly interested in PNG’s natural resources. Indonesia, suffering from a poor reputation due to its decades-long conflict with separatist rebels in Papua, is looking to reboot regional relations. South Korea is offering economic incentives to PNG, with trade increasing by 240% in 2022.
Japan, the world’s largest LNG importer and PNG’s second-largest trade partner, secured “favoured access” to PNG’s new gas field developments. Australia, a key US regional ally, remains a key trading partner and investor/donor for PNG, strengthening its relationships with the region. France, a strong supporter of greater European “strategic autonomy,” is making strong inroads in PNG and the wider region, signing a status of forces agreement with PNG and a defence cooperation agreement with Fiji.
Global and regional powers are seeking to expand their influence in PNG and the region, with PNG located at the center of a region with increasing rivalries and tensions. James Marape, who has pledged neutrality and aims to become the “richest black Christian nation,” aims to boost the economy through foreign investments. However, PNG’s long-standing challenges, including violence, corruption, and political instability, pose significant challenges. The country’s strategic location and growing importance in mineral and energy sectors have led to increased high-level visits in 2023. PNG must navigate the geopolitical maze to reach other countries unscathed.