The United States signed a defense agreement with Papua New Guinea on Monday, as it seeks to strengthen ties in the Pacific amid competition with China for influence in the region.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape signed the Defense Cooperation Agreement in Papua New Guinea's capital Port Moresby, alongside a maritime security agreement aimed at countering illegal fishing.
According to the U.S. State Department, the defense pact will "serve as a foundational framework" to enhance security cooperation, improve the capacity of Papua New Guinea's defense force and "increase stability and security in the region."
Advanced text of the agreements has not been released by either country, sparking concern among locals and opposition politicians that it could compromise Papua New Guinea's sovereignty and national security interests, according to reports by local news outlet Loop PNG.
University students in Papua New Guinea's capital and the second-largest city Lae have staged protests against signing the agreement since early Sunday, local media reported, over concerns about a lack of transparency from the government on the pact.
"An agreement of this magnitude must go before parliament. There must be clarity. The people must be made aware of the implications," the students' president at the University of Technology in Lae, Kenzie Walipi, told news outlet, RNZ Pacific.
In a statement Saturday, the Papua New Guinea government defended the pact saying it will improve the nation's defense capability at a time of increasing global disputes.
"Papua New Guinea does not have enemies, but it pays to be prepared. Territorial dispute is (imminent), as in the case of Ukraine -- Russia," said the Department of Information and Technology statement.
"This agreement is not about geopolitics but rather recognizes the country's need to build its defense capabilities because border disputes are inevitable in the future."
The statement also noted that the agreement with the United States "does not stop Papua New Guinea from working with other nations, including China," consistent with the "friends to all, enemies to none" foreign policy shared by several Pacific Island nations.
Blinken was in Papua New Guinea after U.S. President Joe Biden canceled his planned visit to the country so he could return to the United States for urgent debt ceiling negotiations.
After the Solomon Islands signed a wide-reaching security pact with Beijing last year, the United States has been increasing efforts to counter China's rapidly expanding influence in the Pacific.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said Monday at a press conference in Beijing that "China has no objection to normal cooperation between Papua New Guinea and other countries" but warned against "engaging in geopolitical games in the name of cooperation."
"At the same time, we also believe that any cooperation should not be aimed at third parties," Mao added.
Papua New Guinea holds a strategically significant location just north of Australia and is the most populous Pacific Island nation, with a population of nearly 10 million.