By Harry Pearl
The United States military has been given unrestricted access to develop and deploy forces from key Papua New Guinea bases, according to details of a defense cooperation agreement signed last month.
The full text of the Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA), which has been reviewed by BenarNews, shows that U.S. forces will be able to station troops and vessels at six ports and airports, including the Lombrum Naval Base and Port Moresby Jacksons International Airport.
Washington will have “unimpeded access” to the facilities, which may be used for mutually agreed activities such as training, transit, maintenance and refueling of aircraft and vessels, including aircraft conducting “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities.”
The bases may also be used for “staging and deploying of forces and material,” bunkering vessels, security assistance, humanitarian and disaster relief. Some facilities, or parts of them, can be used exclusively by U.S. forces, which have permission to refurbish them, according to the document.
U.S. authorities have also been given exclusive rights to exercise criminal jurisdiction over American personnel in the country – a contentious provision that is likely to cause concern among certain groups in the Pacific island nation.
Papua New Guinea retains civil and administrative jurisdiction over U.S. personnel for “acts and omissions” outside the official course of duty.
The agreement, signed on May 22, is part of Washington’s efforts to counter Beijing’s growing influence in the Pacific and experts say it significantly expands U.S. strategic capabilities in the region.
“As far as I know, the U.S. doesn’t have a similar agreement already in place with other South Pacific countries – this would be the most forward-leaning,” said Mihai Sora, director of the Aus-PNG Network at the Australia-based Lowy Institute.
He said a useful comparison would be the US-Philippines DCA, which grants a similar level of access for the U.S. there.
In Washington, officials at the U.S. Department of Defense did not immediately respond to a request for comment from BenarNews.
Changing security environment
In a statement to Parliament tabled with the DCA on Monday, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape said the agreement with the U.S. would in “no way compromise PNG’s bilateral relations with any other country.”
Papua New Guinea maintained its foreign affairs policy of friends to all and enemies to none, but traditional security alliances were inadequate to deal with current regional and global security challenges, he said.
He reiterated the DCA does not grant immunity for breaches of any law of Papua New Guinea.
Marape said the agreement “validates the presence of U.S. forces” to conduct defense-related activities. It did not include or promote defense commitments or military intervention, he said.
The U.S. has stepped up its engagement in the Pacific under the Biden administration, underscoring increased geopolitical competition in the vast ocean region where China’s diplomatic relations have burgeoned.
U.S. President Joe Biden had planned to travel to Papua New Guinea to sign the DCA, but canceled the visit at the last moment to focus on negotiations to raise the U.S. government’s debt limit.
China, over several decades, has become a substantial source of trade, infrastructure and aid for developing Pacific island countries as it seeks to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and build its own set of global institutions.
Last year, China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, alarming the U.S. and its allies such as Australia. The Solomons and Kiribati switched their diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taiwan in 2019.
Sora said the regional security environment was changing rapidly and the view of traditional security partners was that existing arrangements needed to adapt.
“What we’re seeing is an effort from traditional security providers in the Pacific, such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand, to both elevate and formalize their roles as security partners of choice for Pacific countries through bilateral agreements,” he said.
These security agreements sat uneasily with some Pacific stakeholders, and individual states – both larger powers and Pacific countries themselves – need to consider carefully how bilateral arrangements work alongside regional architecture established by the Pacific Islands Forum, he said