By Kirsty Needham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia wants to strike an “ambitious” security treaty with neighbour Papua New Guinea that will see navy, airforce and army personnel from each nation working alongside each other more often, Defence Minister Richard Marles said in Port Moresby on Thursday.
Marles’s first visit to Papua New Guinea comes after the United States said at a White House summit last month it would start talks on a defence cooperation agreement with Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape’s government.
The United States and its allies are seeking to counter China’s growing influence in the strategically important region, after being alarmed by China striking a security pact with the Solomon Islands in April.
Speaking to reporters alongside Marape on Thursday, Marles said Australia wanted to elevate its security cooperation with Papua New Guinea to the status of a bilateral treaty as soon as possible.
“The defence relationship is one of the strengths of the bilateral relationship but this is really playing to that strength,” he said, adding most officers of the Papua New Guinea defence force already undertake some training in Australia.
A treaty would seek to make defence cooperation “even closer, where we are having defence personnel working alongside each other more” across maritime, aviation and army, he said.
The bilateral defence talks had a “very ambitious agenda”, he said.
Australia’s new Labor government pledged in the May national election to set up a defence school to train Pacific island militaries, amid intensifying competition with China for security ties.
On Wednesday, Solomon Islands said it had sent 32 police officers to train in China.
Papua New Guinea proposed a security treaty with Australia during Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s visit in August.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Lincoln Feast)