Australia will roll out the red carpet to the visiting Papua New Guinea prime minister, James Marape, amid efforts to stall China’s security talks with the Pacific country.
Marape is due to arrive in Canberra on Wednesday before he addresses a joint sitting of the Australian parliament on Thursday – the first Pacific leader to be afforded this honour.
Amid increasing competition for influence in the region, the Australian government will seek to build on the security agreement with PNG that Marape and Anthony Albanese signed just two months ago.
The two prime ministers will also hold an annual leaders’ meeting on Thursday.
Recent reports that PNG and China have entered early talks on security and policing cooperation has alarmed Australian officials, who say Beijing is learning from its mistakes, including an ill-fated attempt by China last year to strike an overarching security and trade agreement with 10 Pacific countries at once.
The PNG government has since stressed its continued appreciation for Australia as an important “traditional security partner”.
Marape’s visit comes at a time of rising pressure at home after an outbreak of deadly unrest and violence in PNG’s capital in January. That led to a string of minsters resigning and this month, Marape may face a vote of no confidence as a political process allowing MPs to challenge the PM begins on Friday.
Last month, a state of emergency was declared in Port Moresby in response to rioting and other violence in which at least 16 people were killed. Shops were set on fire and citizens robbed and assaulted after police and public sector workers protested over a pay cut that officials blamed on an administrative glitch.
Marape faced calls to resign, and at least six ministers quit in the wake of the riots. The prime minister refused to step aside, saying that the unrest was politically planned and organised and that he could only be removed on the floor of parliament, and suspended the police commissioner and other senior figures instead.
Pressure on the prime minister, who is also battling a weak economy, has continued to grow. In Papua New Guinea, prime ministers are protected from no-confidence votes for the first 18 months of their leadership; for Marape, that period expires this week.
The process to allow votes of no confidence, common in Papua New Guinea politics, begins on 9 February and runs until August.
MP Puka Temu, who recently left the government and joined the opposition, said it was “astonishing” that Albanese would invite Marape to a state visit days before the vote of no confidence in the PNG leader was opened.
“Is Australia insensitive to PNG’s domestic politics or blatantly interfering in our democratic processes?” Temu said. “The political processes of Papua New Guinea matter. They need to be respected and not interfered with in the way Australia is currently doing.”
Marape told the Guardian the visit was scheduled last year and hit back at the opposition for playing “politics with the PNG and Australia relationship”.
“This historic address will elevate PNG at a regional leadership level in as far as PNG’s place in Pacific and the world is concerned,” Marape said.
The director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific islands program, Dr Meg Keen, said Marape would be looking to use the visit to enhance trade with Australia.
“This will be the first PM to address the parliament of any Pacific country,” Keen said.
Keen said the trip, which also includes a special dinner, showed Australia was “doing some red carpet treatment here, as of course China has done”.
Albanese said he was “deeply honoured” to be the first foreign head of government to address Papua New Guinea’s national parliament in January last year, and it was “fitting to invite Prime Minister Marape to do the same”.
Australia and PNG should work closely together because their security and prosperity were “bound together”, Albanese added.
Keen said Marape had indicated Australia remained “the security partner of choice” and that he would not do anything to compromise the agreement.
“However, it’s been clear from day one that these deals (US and Australia) were never exclusive deals and Marape reserves the right to pursue security deals with other countries,” Keen said.
“It’s not that PNG hasn’t had a long history in engaging with China on security … China has invested millions in security in PNG including vehicles and police training. China is trying to enhance that and get [closer].”
The Albanese government has bipartisan support to deepen ties with PNG.
The Coalition’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Simon Birmingham, said Marape’s visit “should deliver meaningful progress on policies in areas such as security, climate, health and economic development”.
Rebecca Kuku is a reporter with the National, based in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.