Biden’s planned visit to Papua New Guinea fuels hope and criticism

Harlyne Joku
2023.05.16
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
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Biden’s planned visit to Papua New Guinea fuels hope and criticism Members of PNG Trade Union Congress mentioned U.S. President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit to Papua New Guinea and other issues at a press conference in Port Moresby, May 15, 2023.
Harlyne Joku/BenarNews

U.S. President Joe Biden’s and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming visits to Papua New Guinea are provoking both excitement and skepticism in a Pacific island country that grapples with poverty, tribal conflicts and lack of infrastructure.

From hopes of support for Papuans who want independence from Indonesia – which has a long border with Papua New Guinea – to warnings about global conflict, the most populous Pacific island country is bubbling with opinions about the merits of the visits, particularly Biden’s.

The American president is expected to briefly stop over in the capital Port Moresby on Monday before heading to Sydney for a meeting with the leaders of Australia, Japan and India. Modi will be visiting Port Moresby for a summit with leaders of Pacific island countries, who Biden also will meet. 

Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape last week quixotically cautioned his fellow citizens to be cautious when commenting about the visits and to “refrain from unnecessary inferences, especially on matters that you know little of, such as global geopolitics and various other issues.”

Biden, leader of a country that is the world's largest economy and a nuclear-armed superpower, met Pacific island leaders in Washington in September 2022. That summit was meant to highlight renewed U.S. participation in the Pacific where China has made inroads over several decades. His visit to Papua New Guinea is meant to underscore that commitment, analysts said.

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High school student Cameron (left), pictured in Papua New Guinea’s capital Port Moresby on May 11, 2023, said U.S. President Joe Biden should make his intentions clear to ordinary Papua New Guineans when he visits later this month. [Harlyne Joku/BenarNews]

Cameron, a high school student in Port Moresby who gave only his first name, said he wanted to know what benefits Biden’s visit would bring to Papua New Guinea.

“We are honored and happy that U.S. President Biden is coming to PNG, but we do not know of his intentions,” he said. “He must make it clear to us ordinary Papua New Guineans.” 

Biden’s visit, according to Vincent Manukayasi, an activist with civil society group PNG Trust, is an opportune time to address the plight of Papuans who live on the western half of New Guinea island under Indonesian rule. 

“Biden has to be told about what is happening,” he said.

Indonesia took control of the territory from the Dutch in the early 1960s and its rule was cemented by a referendum in 1969 in which little more than 1,000 Papuans were allowed to participate. 

The actions of Indonesia’s government and military in West Papua are a “genocidal attempt by Jakarta to remove the Melanesian race,” said Manukayasi, referring to the frequent reports of human rights abuses. 

Most countries including the United States and Papua New Guinea recognize Indonesia’s sovereignty over its Papuan region. However some Pacific island countries including Melanesian nations such as Vanuatu are staunch supporters of self determination for Papuans under Indonesian rule.

The brevity of Biden’s planned visit – reported by Papua New Guinea’s media to be three hours – has drawn unfavorable comparisons with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s stay in the Pacific country in November 2018, when it hosted the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders summit.

The United States sent then-Vice President Mike Pence to the summit, but he and his delegation based themselves in northern Australia rather than Port Moresby.

“China was genuine. President Xi Jinping was here on the ground,” businessman Justin Parker said in the WhatsApp group for PNG ThinkTank, an online forum. “He showed genuine development partnership with PNG.”

Biden’s visit, said Parker, “is nothing but for [the] U.S. own security interest.” 

Others said Papua New Guinea should be pragmatic and try to benefit from the China-U.S. rivalry in the Pacific. 

“What we can do is to take advantage of this short visit, riding on our ‘friends to all, enemies to none’ foreign policy stance to leverage the best outcome for the country,” said Anton Sekum, acting general secretary of the PNG Trade Union Congress.

“If the U.S. or any other country thinks there are opportunities here their country can benefit from, they must come prepared with a clean deal for our people’s benefit too,” he said.

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Betelnut seller Kini, pictured in Papua New Guinea’s capital Port Moresby on May 11, 2023, said he hopes U.S. President Biden’s upcoming visit will bring mutual respect. [Harlyne Joku/BenarNews]

Kini, who sells betelnut, a mild stimulant, from a makeshift stall in Port Moresby, said he would like to greet Biden in person.

“When he comes we will respect him and he too must respect and help us,” he said.

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