May 22 (Reuters) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged support for Pacific islands at a summit in Papua New Guinea on Monday, and the U.S. secretary of state is also due to meet Pacific leaders to sign a defense pact with Papua New Guinea.
Washington and its allies have sought to prevent the Pacific island nation, which spans 40 million square kilometers (15 million square miles) of sea, from forming security ties with China, a growing concern amid tensions over Taiwan.
Historians have said PNG and the Solomon Islands – which struck a security pact with Beijing last year – were vital to the US push across the Pacific to liberate the Philippines from World War II.
Pacific island leaders have said sea level rise due to climate change is their top conservation priority.
Modi told the 14 leaders of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation that India would be a reliable development partner for small island states and was committed to a “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific”.
In his opening remarks, he said, “Without a doubt, we are ready to share our skills and experiences in the fields of digital technology, space technology, health care, food security, climate change and environmental protection.”
He added that the leaders of the Quad, Australia, the United States, Japan and India, had agreed in Hiroshima to increase cooperation with Pacific island nations.
In his inaugural speech, PNG Prime Minister James Marab urged India to think about small island states that “suffer as a result of the game of big nations”.
For example, Marabe said Russia’s war with Ukraine has caused inflation and higher fuel and electricity prices in the region’s smaller economies.
Modi held a bilateral meeting with Solomon Islands President Manasseh Sogavere, whose defense pact with China has worried Washington about Beijing’s intentions in the region.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is expected to sign a defense cooperation agreement between the US and PNG and host a meeting of Pacific Island leaders later in the afternoon.
Several universities staged protests on campuses against the signing of the defense cooperation agreement, amid concerns that it would upset China. Marab has denied that PNG will stop working with China, an important trading partner.
The PNG government previously said the US defense deal was an extension of an existing agreement that would boost PNG’s defense infrastructure and capacity after decades of neglect.
Marabe told media on Sunday that the defense deal would also increase US military presence over the next decade.
Washington will provide $45 million in new funding to PNG to strengthen economic and security cooperation, including the PNG security force, climate change mitigation and combating transnational crime and HIV/AIDS, the US State Department said.
Blinken visited a healthcare clinic where US funding is helping to fight HIV/AIDS by increasing access to testing and antiretroviral treatment.
US Commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral John Aquino, presented personal protective equipment to PNG’s defense force at a ceremony held at PNG’s Murray Barracks, the PNG Post Courier reported.
Kirsty Needham in Sydney reports; Editing Lincoln Feast
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