U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday during a visit to Papua New Guinea that Washington was not seeking a permanent military base in the Pacific island nation under a new defense deal.

The United States and Papua New Guinea signed a defense cooperation agreement in May that gives the U.S. military “unimpeded access” to develop and deploy forces from six ports and airports, including the Lombrum Naval Base.

The deal has been criticized by some in the Pacific nation for being overly accommodative to American interests and possibly upsetting for China, a major trading partner. But Austin on Thursday stressed U.S. commitment to the sovereignty and autonomy of Papua New Guinea.

“I just want to be clear, we are not seeking a permanent base in PNG,” Austin said during a joint press conference with Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape.

“Our goal is to strengthen PNG’s ability to defend itself and protect its interests.”

The agreement, signed on May 22, is part of Washington’s efforts to counter Beijing’s growing influence in the Pacific.

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 Solomon Islands, alarming the U.S. and its allies such as Australia and underlining the heightened geopolitical competition in the region.

Marape on Thursday said the defense cooperation agreement, which is yet to be ratified by Parliament, formalized the ad-hoc relationship that Papua New Guinea already had with the U.S. military.

Papua New Guinea was building its defense capabilities to keep the country safe, including from illegal fishing and transnational crime, “not for joint war preparation.”

“I want to give assurance to everybody here that this is not about setting out for war, but setting a presence for nation building in PNG and this part of the Pacific,” he said.

Austin is on his way to Brisbane, Australia where he and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet their Australian counterparts for the annual Australia–U.S. Ministerial Consultations.

Source: RFA

URL: https://www.rfa.org/english/news/pacific/us-png-bases-07272023040632.html