Australia says it will help train thousands of new police officers in Papua New Guinea as part of a bilateral security deal signed Thursday. The deal comes amid growing competition for influence in the region between Australia and its Western allies on one hand and China on the other. Papua New Guinean Prime Minister James Marape said the "historic " accord did not mean his country was picking between China and the West.
The bilateral agreement between Australia and Papua New Guinea is officially referred to as a Framework for Closer Security Relations.
The two Indo-Pacific countries are physically separated by just a few kilometers of sea in the Torres Strait, but the wide-ranging security accord brings them closer together politically.
It was signed by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his Papua New Guinean counterpart, James Marape, in Canberra Thursday, and was described by Albanese in local media as "comprehensive and historic."
Under its terms, Australia will help to fund the recruitment of thousands of additional police officers in Papua New Guinea and build up its judiciary and prison services.
The pact includes a provision that if either country believes it is facing a regional security threat, then both sides will consult and coordinate a response. The accord does not prevent Papua New Guinea from signing security agreements with other countries.
It comes at a time of growing rivalry for influence across the Pacific. Last year China signed a security deal with the Solomon Islands, a strategic archipelago northeast of Australia. Chinese authorities have invited senior police officers from across the Pacific region to a meeting in China on Friday as it seeks to expand it law enforcement ties across the region.
Henry Ivarature, deputy director of the Australian National University Pacific Security College, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Friday the Papua New Guinea-Australia pact could increase China’s interest in the region.
"Signing the agreement, it definitely fuels the geopolitical competition in the region. Perhaps China may try to increase its activities in the region,” he said. “For example, it has invited senior police officers to China. There will be a competition for the attention of Pacific Island leaders."
There have been tensions between Australia and China over geopolitical issues including democracy in Hong Kong and Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea and Pacific.
Bilateral ties between Australia and China have improved since the May 2022 election of a left-leaning government in Canberra, which has been eager to stabilize relations with its biggest trading partner.
In May, Papua New Guinea signed a security agreement with the United States that included upgrades to military bases costing about $10 million.