US not seeking permanent base in Papua New Guinea, defense secretary says

WASHINGTON (Reuters): US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said on Thursday during a visit to Papua New Guinea that the United States was not seeking a permanent base in the Pacific Islands nation under a new defence agreement.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the United States signed a defence cooperation agreement in May that sets a framework for the US to refurbish PNG ports and airports for military and civilian use.

Austin met PNG Prime Minister James Marape on the first visit by a US defence chief, to discuss deepening ties and announce a US Coast Guard vessel would arrive in August under a separate maritime law enforcement deal.

Marape said PNG’s second-largest city of Lae, a major cargo port, has been designated as a US base for disaster management.

“I just want to be clear, we are not seeking a permanent base in PNG,” Austin told a press conference in the capital, Port Moresby.

The text of the defence agreement shows that it allows the staging of US forces and equipment in PNG.

Austin said the two countries were deepening an existing defence relationship, and would modernise PNG’s defence force and boost interoperability.

“Our goal is to make sure we strengthen PNG’s ability to defend itself and protect its interest,” he said.

The United States and its allies are seeking to deter Pacific Islands nations from establishing security ties with China, a rising concern amid tension over Taiwan, and after Beijing signed a security pact with Solomon Islands.

The US Coast Guard is boosting its presence in the region under bilateral agreements to patrol the vast exclusive economic zones of island states, although Solomon Islands and Vanuatu have blocked US Coast Guard port calls.

Marape said the defence cooperation with the US would build PNG’s capability, and was “not for a war joint preparation”.

“USA do not need PNG’s ground to be a launching pad,” he told reporters in response to questions.

“They have bases in Philippines, in Korea, elsewhere, much closer to China,” he added.

PNG’s parliament has yet to ratify the defence deal, which has been questioned by some opposition politicians concerned about upsetting major trading partner China. Marape said his government prioritised diplomacy.

“In the Pacific we are not about war, we are about peace, tolerance and of course promoting our values of democracy, Christianity … The USA has always been showing that character also in their global footprint,” he said.