SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia wants the closest possible relationship with Papua New Guinea, Foreign Minister Penny Wong said on Monday, marking the new Labor government’s first visit to its northern neighbour amid competition with China for influence.
Prime Minister James Marape was returned to the role in August after Papua New Guinea’s national election, and will meet with Wong on Monday.
Papua New Guinea (PNG) has previously turned down a Chinese offer to redevelop a naval base. Canberra is funding Telstra’s acquisition of PNG’s biggest mobile provider, Digicel, to counter a growing Chinese influence in the Pacific islands.
PNG and China agreed to deepen cooperation in energy, fisheries, communications and health during a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in June, according to a Chinese statement released during the visit.
Papua New Guinea won independence from Australia in 1975 under a Labor government, and Wong said in Port Moresby on Monday the two countries had traded together for thousands of years and should continue to have the “closest possible relationship”.
“Our futures are tied together,” she added.
“Our traditional partners have always been Australia when it comes to trade, economics, security and we will continue to do so … to make sure we have a safe region,” PNG’s new Minister for Foreign Affairs, Justin Tkatchenko, said at a livestreamed news conference.
Also on Monday, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said in an address to the National Press Club in Canberra he would host a visit by Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and East Timor President Jose Ramos Horta “in the coming period”, without providing dates.
The Solomon Islands has had a tense relationship with the Australia and the United States since striking a security pact with China in May.
A United States Coast Guard vessel was recently unable to make a routine port call because the Solomon Islands government did not respond to a request for it to refuel and provision.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)