The prime minister of Papua New Guinea has warned that his country will not be caught in a “standoff” between the US, Australia and China, as geopolitical tensions in the Pacific increase, warning the global powers to “keep your fights to yourselves”.
“Our nation is still an emerging economy, we cannot afford the standoff between our trading partners,” James Marape told the Guardian while on a visit to Sydney for a petroleum and mining conference.
He said that among Pacific leaders there was a concern about being caught in the crosshairs of accelerating tensions between the US and China, which have both been making increasing diplomatic overtures to Pacific countries in recent years.
“I think amongst ourselves we realise those contests are taking place above our heads, we counsel ourselves that we can’t afford to be caught in those debates,” he said.
US President Joe Biden invited leaders of a number of Pacific nations to Washington for a US-Pacific summit in September, the first summit of its kind, in what was widely seen as a response to China’s growing engagement in the region.
Marape said that during the visit he told Biden that the US seemed “very far away” and was not a significant trading partner for Papua New Guinea and that until PNG had been able to diversify its export destinations, the country could not afford to sacrifice any of its current trading relationships.
“So keep your debates to yourselves and your fights to yourselves. Your enemy is not my enemy, that’s a line that is emerging in the Pacific. We will not compromise democracy, we will not compromise our relationships with the west as far as democratic values are concerned, but at the same time we will never compromise our trading relationships.”
Marape said China had never broached discussions with him about expanding the relationship between the countries to include a security element.
“The Chinese to be fair, they have never, in the last three years I’ve been prime minister, they have never pushed that space in terms of asking us to look at security arrangements, setting up a military base in PNG,” he said. “When I met President Xi Jinping on the margins of Apec, there was no conversation about security arrangements, it was purely conversations on commerce and trade.”
Asked if he had any interest in a conversation with China on security, Marape said there was “no need to do that”.
“I think our current arrangements on security with other nations like Australia are satisfactory, they’re closer to us, easier for us to have access to.”
Marape also cited the closeness of the relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea, saying the countries were “joined at the hip”.
Anthony Albanese was due to travel to Papua New Guinea next week, on what would have been the first visit to the country by an Australian prime minister since 2018, but there are now doubts as to whether the trip will go ahead, following Albanese testing positive for Covid on Monday.
Marape said Papua New Guinea was “ready to welcome him, Covid or not”.
“We are the least vaccinated nation in the Pacific, I don’t know about the world, but definitely in the Pacific, so if he’s tested positive, it’s his decision to make whether he travels or not, but … our entire country is excited for his visit.”
Marape also responded to a report in the Australian newspaper on Monday, which cited a new UN study that estimated Papua New Guinea’s population could be 17 million people, almost double the official estimate of around 9.5 million.
The Australian said the report, issued by the UN Population Fund, used satellite modelling and other data to reach the estimate.
Marape called the 17 million figure “a little bit of a surprise”.
“I have not seen that report, no one has advised me on that 17 million mark or the methodology that was used to count. So I wouldn’t… be affirmative as to whether that is accurate.”
He added that the country would conduct a full census in 2023-2024, the first since 2011, with money in the budget for that process.
United Nations development programme assistant secretary general, Kanni Wignaraja, said the PNG population estimate came from a draft study that used “very modern techniques”.
“It certainly was an internal draft that is still … going through its internal review process, so one should have waited till it was completed,” she told the Guardian during a visit to Australia.
She said the draft findings cast PNG’s development indicators in a different light. “We’ll have to look at it with a new lens and new set of assumptions, but I think it’s best to wait for census that does the full head count.”
Additional reporting from Daniel Hurst