By Kirsty Needham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden telephoned his Papua New Guinea counterpart James Marape on Thursday after cancelling a historic meeting in the Pacific islands nation to tell him Secretary of State Antony Blinken would travel in his place, the two leaders said.
Pacific island leaders will meet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a high-level U.S. delegation in Papua New Guinea on Monday.
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Biden pulled out of the visit to Papua New Guinea due to debt ceiling negotiations in Washington, a move seen by some as a blow to U.S. diplomacy in the region.
Biden had been expected to meet 18 leaders from the region’s main bloc, the Pacific Islands Forum, and sign a defence co-operation pact with PNG on Monday.
Marape told a press conference on Thursday that Biden had called him and invited him to a U.S.- Pacific island summit in Washington in September.
“I was privileged on behalf of the people that (Biden) placed a call directly to my cell phone … he conveyed his sincerest apologies that he cannot make it to our country,” Marape said.
Biden said Blinken would travel to PNG in his place, Marape added.
Biden called from Air Force One, the White House said in a statement, to personally convey the reason he was unable to travel to PNG was due to the need to ensure Congress took action to avert a default.
“The President emphasised continued U.S. commitment to the renewed partnership with the Pacific Islands,” the statement said.
Marape said a defence co-operation agreement with the United States had been scrutinised by the PNG government solicitor and would be signed on Monday, before being presented in parliament.
FRAMEWORK PACT TO BE SIGNED
Despite criticism from some opposition politicians that the deal could upset PNG’s trade with China, Marape said the U.S. pact would not compromise the country’s foreign policy of “friends to all, enemies to none”.
A framework pact would be signed, and the details of “how we deal with boots on the ground, how we deal with contractors on the ground, how we deal with airport-related issues, port-related issues, those will be worked upon”, he said.
Fiji’s Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka arrived in PNG on Thursday, ahead of the Pacific leaders’ meeting with Modi on regional co-operation.
The leaders will meet a U.S. delegation on Monday for talks on “areas of cooperation and challenges critical to the region and the U.S.,” Fiji officials said.
In a statement, Rabuka’s office said, “The meeting demonstrates the U.S. and Pacific’s deep historical and people-to-people ties.”
Action on climate change, protection of maritime resources and economic growth were priorities, it added.
The chairman of the Pacific Islands Forum, Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, said he welcomed increased engagement by the larger countries in the Pacific as an opportunity to discuss and articulate regional challenges.
Analysts said the cancellation of Biden’s visit, which would have been the first by an incumbent president to an independent Pacific islands nation, could damage U.S. credibility amid competition for influence with China in the strategic region.
“The Chinese are at least happy for now,” the PNG Post Courier wrote in an editorial on Thursday.
The White House statement said Biden had told Marape the Pacific island leaders could continue discussions in Washington on “shared priorities including combating the climate crisis, increasing trade and economic ties, promoting maritime security, advancing sustainable and inclusive development”.