Top U.S. military officials and diplomats are embarking this week on another concerted push against Chinese influence across the Indo-Pacific, hoping to expand security agreements with key Pacific Island nations.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea late Wednesday for a series of meetings with the country's prime minister and top defense officials.
The visit to Papua New Guinea, the first by a sitting U.S. secretary of defense, comes just months after the two countries signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement, meant to serve as a framework for enhancing the capabilities of Port Moresby's defense forces and establishing a U.S. military presence – with rotational forces – on the island.
From there, Austin is set to travel to Brisbane, Australia, for the 33rd annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN), where he will be joined by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and their Australian counterparts.
Blinken will arrive in Australia after a visit to the island nation of Tonga, where he dedicated a new U.S. embassy, and a stop in New Zealand.
The visits by Austin and Blinken are being supplemented by other trips to the region by high-ranking U.S. officials, including a visit by Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff to New Zealand and Samoa, and an upcoming trip by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia.
"We see ourselves as delivering results with partners," a senior U.S. defense official said Monday, ahead of Austin's visit to Papua New Guinea. "The secretary's hitting the road again to keep the momentum moving forward in the region."
Focus on defense agreement
For Austin, the key focus for his meetings in Port Moresby will be on the recently signed defense agreement, which still needs to be ratified by Papua New Guinea's parliament.
U.S. officials said they are optimistic the deal will be ratified "quite soon," adding it is something "that both sides really wanted."
"The agreement will serve as a foundational framework for us to enhance our security cooperation, improve the capacity of the PNG [Papua New Guinea] defense forces, allow us to respond to humanitarian and regional crises, and also expand the scope of our [military] exercises," said a second defense official, who like the first briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
The official also expressed confidence that officials from both countries will make progress on a second deal — a so-called shiprider agreement — that allows Papua New Guinea personnel to sail on U.S. Coast Guard ships.
"This is really important and really valuable for enhancing maritime domain awareness and combating things like illegal unregulated and unreported fishing," the official said.
Concern about China
Yet for all the optimism, there is growing concern about pushback from China in response to U.S. efforts.
During a visit to the U.S. last week, the president of Palau, a small Pacific Island nation, warned Beijing is actively trying to influence politicians in his country and others to prevent them from gravitating to Washington.
"All the Chinese need to do is get a new president that favors what they want to do and they can change it," Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. said during an event in Washington.
And Whipps said Beijing's strategy is meeting with some success, having managed to curry favor with some of his fellow politicians by offering economic incentives that Washington has yet to match.
Pressed on China's outreach campaign and offers of economic cooperation, some U.S. officials downplayed the concerns.
"Our approach… is to demonstrate value and to demonstrate the ways in which we can contribute meaningfully to a long term, mutually beneficial security relationship," said the second senior defense official.
"In every one of our alliances and partnerships throughout the region, we are working to ensure they're delivering for the partners and for the host countries," the official said. "And I think that's true in every instance."
As evidence, they point to agreements like the ones signed by Papua New Guinea and also to military exercises like Talisman Sabre, getting underway in Australia.
With some 30,000 troops taking part, Talisman Sabre is the largest U.S.-Australian military exercise. This year, however, U.S. officials point to participation from a host of other countries from the region, including India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand. Additionally, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga, are taking part for the first time.
U.S. diplomatic officials, however, have been careful not to paint U.S. efforts, including the establishment of a new U.S. embassy in Tonga, as part of a counter-China campaign.
"Our embassy is not being set up to counter China," a State Department official told reporters last week, briefing on the condition of anonymity.
"Strategic competition is an aspect, a reality in the region," the official added. "But we are standing up an embassy to reflect our strong ties with Tonga and, frankly, our desire to be engaged in places like Tonga."
Still, despite efforts to downplay Washington's moves in the Pacific, some analysts say the U.S. and allies like Australia are keenly aware of China's efforts to lure countries into its sphere of influence, either with economic incentives or with security agreements, as it has done with the Solomon Islands.
"Australia and the U.S. have never been more interested in the Pacific Islands than they are now," said Lavina Lee, a Sydney-based adjunct fellow with the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies, during a media call previewing this week's Australia-U.S. ministerial meeting in Brisbane.
"Both Australia and the U.S. is keen to address the region's concerns by also showing that they are a provider of public goods without strings attached, as opposed to China."
At the same time, the U.S. and Australia are working to strengthen their growing military cooperation, with U.S. officials speaking of a "profound strategic alignment" between the two allies.
"There will be a strong focus on advancing defense industrial cooperation, production and information," the second U.S. defense official said of Saturday's ministerial meeting.
U.S. officials said they expect the meeting to result in a "broadening [of] our force posture initiatives to new domains and locations" in Australia.
They also expect talks to focus on Australia's guided weapons and explosive ordnance enterprise aimed at bolstering Australia's ability to produce precision guided munitions, which have been in demand in Ukraine and could further be in demand by Taiwan should China decide to retake the island by force.