By Michael Walsh
Later this month, President Biden is scheduled to make an official visit to Papua New Guinea while en route to the Quad Leaders’ Summit from the G7 Leaders’ Summit. The visit is being hailed as the first time that a sitting American president has ever visited a Pacific island country. It also builds on three prior events attended by senior leadership figures.
In 2018, former vice president Mike Pence visited Papua New Guinea to attend the APEC CEO Summit. At that event, he highlighted the value of multi-billion dollar investments made in Papua New Guinea by ExxonMobil. He declared that the United States would partner with Australia and Papua New Guinea on Lombrum Naval Base. And he promised that the United States government would protect the sovereignty and maritime rights of Pacific island countries.
Last July, Vice President Kamala Harris addressed the 51st Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting. In her remarks, she acknowledged that the Pacific Island Countries have not received the diplomatic spotlight that they deserve from the U.S. government. She also delivered a commitment to strengthen the partnership between the United States and the Pacific island countries.
Last September, Biden hosted the U.S.–Pacific Island Country Summit, where participants jointly issued a Declaration on the U.S.-Pacific Partnership. Separately, the Biden administration published a formal roadmap for how to implement the commitments made on the American side. This coincided with the release of a Pacific Partnership Strategy as an addendum to the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States.
During the upcoming visit, the Biden administration will seek to further strengthen the partnership between the United States and the Pacific island countries. This will start by putting Papua New Guinea on the list of Presidential Travels Abroad. But, it will not end there. This trip will need to be about much more than a touch and go on a runway in Port Moresby.
The Biden administration will need to make this trip worth the risks. That will require President Biden to deliver on multiple commitments in the space of only a few hours. That will present its own challenges.
There are a lot of upstream dependencies and downstream uncertainties. The Biden administration will therefore need to be prudent in their selection.
Here are four of those options that they are likely to consider:
First, Biden could have a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Marape of Papua New Guinea. Assuming the negotiations will be concluded, that meeting would provide an opportunity to sign new defense and surveillance cooperation agreements between the United States and Papua New Guinea. That would mark an important bilateral win.
Second, Biden could have a joint meeting with Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr, Marshall Islands President David Kabua , and then-Micronesian President David Panuelo. Assuming the negotiations will be concluded, that meeting would provide an opportunity to announce the Compact of Free Association agreements between the United States and the freely associated states. That would enable the next phase in the renewal process to kick-off prior to the debt limit X-date and the summer recess for the United States Congress.
Third, Biden could have a multilateral meeting with the member states of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). That meeting would not only provide an opportunity for all parties to attest to the broadening and deepening of regional cooperation on priority issues such as climate change, economic recovery, maritime security, environmental protection, and international security, it also would present a platform for the PIF member states to independently observe that the U.S. government is making progress against the Roadmap for a 21st-Century U.S.-Pacific Island Partnership.
Of course, not all commitments can be fulfilled through bilateral and multilateral meetings. The American public tends to exhibit limited knowledge about geography, foreign policy, and the world. It also appears to be uncertain about the economy and impatient with the ongoing war in Ukraine. There is a risk that such sentiments could endanger the billions of dollars that the United States government intends to spend on a revised diplomatic and military posture in the Pacific islands region. The Biden administration will need to mitigate that risk.
This presents the fourth option. The Biden administration could try to use the setting to their advantage. The American public may have severe gaps in their knowledge about Papua New Guinea, but many Americans know about the region through war stories about places like Bismarck Sea and Guadalcanal.
Some even have personal memories involving family members. President Biden is one of them. He reportedly had two uncles who were based in Papua New Guinea during World War II. The Biden administration could try to leverage these historic battles and personal memories to persuade a wider audience of the myth that America is a Pacific nation.
Michael Walsh is a senior adjunct fellow at Pacific Forum. He also is an affiliate of the Center for Australian, New Zealand, and Pacific Islands Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. The views expressed are his own.