PORT MORESBY: US President Joe Biden will meet 18 leaders from the South Pacific when he visits Papua New Guinea in May, a top regional diplomat said on Saturday, as the United States and China vie for influence.
Papua New Guinea Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko told a news conference Biden would attend bilateral talks with his hosts and is “also having a meeting with the 18 Pacific Island leaders”.
The 18-member Pacific Island Forum is a regional bloc of mostly small states scattered across the vast swath of ocean.
The prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand will also attend.
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.
According to State Department records, which date back to Theodore Roosevelt’s administration in 1901, no sitting US president has visited Papua New Guinea.
Biden 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 in May. US special envoy Joseph Yun said this week the United States was playing “catch-up” after years of relative neglect.
China recently signed a secretive security pact with Solomon Islands, east of Papua New Guinea, that could allow Chinese troops to be deployed or based there.
A state-backed Chinese company won a contract in March to develop the international port in the capital Honiara.
“We need to accelerate our catch-up,” Yun told the Hudson Institute. “Any high-level engagement is welcome,” he said before Biden’s Pacific meeting was confirmed.
“Have we neglected the Pacific? The answer is yes we have neglected the Pacific and so I do appreciate more attention currently being given. We are trying to correct that quite a bit.”
Biden’s trip may also put the finishing touches on a US-Papua New Guinea Defence Cooperation Agreement.
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 Defence, which is also taking part in the initiative.