France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, took off his suit jacket and tie on Friday and wandered through more than a mile of the wild forests of Papua New Guinea, accompanied by the country’s prime minister, James Marape. The leaders’ walk through the lush Varirata national park was underlined by the signing of a new environmental initiative – backed by French and EU financing – that will reward countries that preserve their rainforests.

At the final stop on their forest walk, they both came to a panorama of partially forested hills stretching into the distance, newly named in the VIP visitor’s honour: “Emmanuel Jean-Michel Frederic Macron Lookout”.

Macron’s Papua New Guinea tour capped off a wave of diplomatic manoeuvres across the Pacific this week that included trips by the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin.

The flurry of high-level visits comes amid a growing battle between the US and China for influence in the South Pacific. Beijing has sought to establish influence through aid and financing projects and last year it struck a security agreement with Solomon Islands. In response, Washington and its allies have stepped up diplomatic efforts and expanded military cooperation in an effort to reinforce links with Pacific governments and provide a counter to China.

Papua New Guinea’s prime minister James Marape and France’s president Emmanuel Macron speak in Port Moresby on Friday. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Green diplomacy

Macron began his trip in New Caledonia, followed by Vanuatu and then Papua New Guinea. The presidential palace said the purpose of Macron’s trip was as much to “re-engage” France in the Pacific as “offer an alternative” to the growing influence of China in the region. France assumes sovereignty for three territories in the Pacific: New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna.

Macron used the visit to tell to Pacific leaders that France understands the threat they face from a warming Earth, from rising seas swamping low-lying islands to a loss of wildlife, wilder weather and the financial costs they impose.

It is a message he emphasised on the eroded coastline of New Caledonia and in the sea-threatened archipelago of Vanuatu, where he joined a call for the phasing out of fossil fuels.

Macron’s environmental push in the South Pacific is not unique: others including the United States, China, Australia and New Zealand finance significant climate change aid in Pacific island states.

However, the so-called Forest, Climate, Biodiversity project, signed on Friday with Papua New Guinea and to be managed by the French development agency, was the key plank of Macron’s visit to Papua New Guinea.

Papua New Guinea sees renewed focus

The visit by Macron – as well as from Austin earlier in the week – mark an increasing strategic focus on Papua New Guinea.

This year the country in the south-west Pacific has received visits from the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, the Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, and Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo. The US president, Joe Biden, cancelled a planned trip due to the then unresolved US debt ceiling crisis.

Marape shakes hands with US secretary of defence Lloyd Austin in Port Moresby. Photograph: Andrew Kutan/AFP/Getty Images

While in Port Moresby, Austin discussed the next steps following the recent signing of a defence cooperation deal that would expand the Pacific island nation’s capabilities and make it easier for the US military to train with its forces. The defence secretary, however, stressed the US was “not seeking a permanent base” in Papua New Guinea.

“We have a longstanding relationship with Papua New Guinea and we share that vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific and we both really respect the rules-based and value the rules-based international order,” Austin said.

Marape said Papua New Guinea’s military “stands to benefit, but more importantly … with our military, the economy and the country-to-country relationships will be strengthened going forward.”

After the surprise security agreement between China and Solomon Islands was announced last year, Washington sought to present itself as a counter to Beijing’s expanding influence in the region.

The United States – the dominant military force in the South Pacific since the second world war – responded by announcing new aid, opening embassies in the region and signing pacts, like the one with Papua New Guinea.

China’s ‘problematic behaviour’

Blinken began his trip in to the region on Wednesday by officially opening a new US embassy in Tonga. While there, he called out what he saw as “problematic behaviour” by Beijing.

During a press conference with the Tongan prime minister, Siaosi Sovaleni, Blinken stated that the US had no objection to China’s engagement with the region but there were concerns that its investments needed to be transparent and undertaken with sustainable finance.

Blinken and Sovaleni later discussed the bilateral relationship, as well as regional and global issues, according to state department spokesperson Matthew Miller.

Miller said the US was “following through” on commitments made by Biden to “elevate our diplomatic and development presence and engagement in the region”. He said the visit also highlighted US efforts to tackle the climate crisis in the Pacific.

Blinken then travelled to New Zealand and has ended his trip with Austin for a meeting with their counterparts in Australia.

While there, Austin sought to highlight what he labelled China’s “bullying behaviour”.

China has imposed a series of official and unofficial trade barriers against Australian exports in recent years, including coal, wine, barley, beef, seafood and wood. Since a change in Australia’s government last year, the relationship between Canberra and Beijing has been seen to be thawing.

Agence France-Presse and Associated Press contributed to this report

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