SYDNEY (Reuters) – Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape will make a state visit to Australia, its government said on Tuesday, as it seeks to cement its position with Pacific island’s new leader amid rising competition for influence in the region.
Marape, who will be accompanied by several cabinet ministers on his visit next week, will be the first foreign leader to visit Australia since the re-election of Prime Minister Scott Morrison in May.
“Discussions will focus on opportunities to boost trade and investment, ways to address shared regional challenges, and strengthening our bilateral cooperation on labor mobility, defense and security,” Morrison’s office said in a statement.
Marape will be in Australia from July 21 to July 26.
Australia has long enjoyed nearly unchecked influence in the Pacific but its position has been challenged by China in recent years as it increases aid to the sparsely populated region that controls vast swathes of resource-rich ocean.
China denies it is seeking a sphere of influence in the Pacific, saying its aid is to help with economic development.
PNG has in recent years turned increasingly to China for financing and China forged a particularly strong relationship with PNG’s former prime minister, Peter O’Neil.
O’Neil was the first Pacific leader to sign up to China’s Belt and Road infrastructure-building program. He met President Xi Jinping more than a dozen times during his time in office, stoking fears in Australia that its influence in PNG was waning.
Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Robert Birsel