US-Papua New Guinea military deal aimed at China

US-Papua New Guinea military deal aimed at China

The United States announced a new military agreement with Papua New Guinea, the most populous Pacific island country, on May 22, 2023.

The deal came shortly after US President Joe Biden announced plans to visit the small island country – the first US president ever to do so. However, continuing fraught budget negotiations in the US led Biden to cancel his plans on May 17.

The details of the military agreement will be made public over the next few months – but US and Papua New Guinea government officials have said that the deal is focused on supporting Papua New Guinea’s defense forces and increasing regional stability.

China is not mentioned explicitly in the announcement of the deal, but we would be remiss in failing to note the connection.

We are experts in US security cooperation and recently published a book about US overseas military deployments. In it, we discuss how US commitments to weaker countries benefit the US and how the broader geopolitical competition with China matters to US military cooperation.

Papua New Guinea’s relevance

Papua New Guinea is located on the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, about 90 miles north of Australia. It has a population of 10 million people and a military with approximately 3,000 active-duty personnel.

An Australian warship is seen off the coast of Papua New Guinea in 2018. Ness Kerton/AFP via Getty Images

The United States’ proposed 2023 military spending budget is over 8,400 times the island country’s annual military spending.

Papua New Guinea has a long history of colonization. The British government took over control of the southeast part of the overall island of New Guinea in the late 1800s, while Germany annexed the northern part.

Australia then took over control of Papua New Guinea in the early 1900s. Papua New Guinea gained independence in 1975. The western half of the island is called Papua and is part of Indonesia.

Papua New Guinea has also served as a strategic location for the US in the past.

During World War II, for example, Papua New Guinea was the site of a long and bloody campaign fought by the Americans and Australians against the Japanese military, who had occupied parts of the island.

Some Papuans have expressed concern about their independence following the US military deal’s announcement. Papuan university students have been protesting the agreement, asking for more clarity on the pact’s details.

Today, Papua New Guinea remains strategically located. Anyone with military access to Papua New Guinea could easily reach Australia, a key US ally, by air or sea, with no need for refueling.

And the United States’ military support and training to Papua New Guinea itself could be a further way for the US military to gain influence on the island and shift military policy to fall more in line with that of the US.

Men wearing military uniforms and helmets stand on boats and walk through the water in a black and white photo, heading toward a wild looking shore.
U.S. soldiers lead military vehicles through the waters off the coast of Papua New Guinea in December 1943, during World War II. US Navy/Getty Images

Who benefits from the deal?

What the US gains from supporting a smaller country with a small military may not seem immediately obvious.

But while Papua New Guinea is a small country, it is important from a geographical and diplomatic position, given its proximity to Indonesia, Australia and the Solomon Islands.

Indeed, the US has security agreements and and partnerships with dozens of countries – such as Colombia and Kenya – that have weaker militaries and less money than the US

We have long studied this question of who benefits when the US partners with a smaller country and found that both countries benefit.

When the US gives military aid to another country, regardless of its wealth, that place generally tends to spend less on its own defense.

The one exception to that is when the US gives money to support militaries in countries that are part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – in that case, countries may respond to US help with spending more on their militaries, too, because of shared interests.

But there are also some strings attached.

Some scholars have argued that a smaller military power like Papua New Guinea gives up sovereignty or autonomy over its foreign policy in exchange for US support.

In that case, the US is exchanging money for Papua New Guinea to align its decisions with the US, instead of China. The US gets a commitment from Papua New Guinea to make decisions that are more favorable to US interests and less favorable to China.

A man dressed in green shirt and shorts runs across tarmac with a helicopter visible in the background.
A Philippine Air Force soldier runs during joint US-Philippines air force exercises in May 2023. Photo: Ezra Acayan / Getty Images via The Conversation

US-China competition

The US and China are clearly engaged in competition with each other over military, political and economic might.

The US is arguably the dominant global power, but China’s strength and influence continue to rise across Asia and Africa, as it has been making military agreements with such countries as the Solomon Islands, Djibouti and Thailand.

There have been several incidents that recently escalated tensions between the US and China.

One of these tension-raising events focused on the US Air Force’s shooting down a Chinese balloon – allegedly used for spying – that flew across the US in early 2023.

Our work shows that a lack of transparency leads to more suspicion against US military deployments abroad.

While the US-Papua New Guinea deal may come with security benefits for both countries, continuing university protests on the island highlight that not everyone in the country wants US involvement – or the risk of giving up the country’s ability to make decisions, independent of any outside military pressure.

Based on our research, we think that increased transparency on the deal may assuage some of these concerns and make it more likely to be successful.

Michael A Allen, Professor of Political Science, Boise State University; Carla Martinez Machain, Professor of Political Science, University at Buffalo, and Michael E Flynn, Professor of Political Science, Kansas State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.