In a twist of events, the much-anticipated historic visit by U.S. President Joe Biden to Papua New Guinea, which had prompted the declaration of a public holiday, has been abruptly canceled. The news has left the nation in a state of deflation, as the prospect of a sitting U.S. president visiting any Pacific Island nation for the first time was dashed. The cancellation was attributed to Biden’s need to focus on debt limit negotiations back home, shifting his priorities away from the planned visit.
Despite the cancellation, some of the planned festivities will proceed as scheduled. Biden’s brief three-hour stopover, originally intended to coincide with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit, was strategically timed to facilitate discussions among Pacific Island leaders on enhancing cooperation. However, with Biden now planning to return directly after the G-7 meeting in Japan, the atmosphere in Papua New Guinea is tinged with disappointment.
The news of Biden’s visit had created a wave of excitement throughout the Pacific region. Steven Ranewa, a lawyer in the capital city of Port Moresby, shared the sentiment, expressing his initial enthusiasm and plans to witness the motorcades from the streets. However, the cancellation left him and many others feeling demoralized. Konio Anu, who manages a lodge in Port Moresby, conveyed her sadness and pondered the implications for the public holiday that had been declared. She anxiously awaited the decision of an international guest who had booked accommodations for Monday.
The cancellation also raised doubts among other leaders, including New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins. After much deliberation, Hipkins decided to proceed with his trip to Papua New Guinea. Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in international security at New Zealand’s Massey University, acknowledged the understanding that Biden’s presence was required domestically but noted how such cancellations could undermine the perception of the U.S. as a reliable partner. Powles emphasized that the meeting held significant importance as a continuation of last year’s summit with Pacific leaders, intended to strengthen U.S.-Pacific relations amidst China’s increasing influence in the region.
In recent times, the U.S. has been actively expanding its presence in the Pacific, opening embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga, with plans for further expansion. However, Powles pointed out that Biden’s tight schedule leading up to next year’s elections would make it challenging to reschedule the visit, casting uncertainty on the future prospects of U.S.-Pacific relations.
Papua New Guinea, with a population nearing 10 million, stands as the most populous Pacific Island nation. Situated north of Australia on the eastern side of New Guinea island, it shares the western side with Indonesia. The nation faces economic challenges, with many of its people leading subsistence lives.
During a speech in Australia in 2016, when Biden served as vice president, he highlighted his personal connection to the Pacific region, mentioning that two of his uncles had fought in Papua New Guinea during World War II. He recounted that one had tragically lost his life, while the other returned home severely wounded. Despite Biden’s personal ties, China managed to secure a top-level delegation and emerged as a prominent player in the region, with Chinese President Xi Jinping visiting Papua New Guinea for an APEC summit in 2018.
Ranewa, the lawyer, observed the increasing influence of China in Papua New Guinea, evident in their provision of services and infrastructure development. While some welcomed China’s assistance, others held reservations. The competition for influence between the U.S. and China in the Pacific remains an ongoing dynamic, shaping the region’s geopolitical landscape.
As the cancellation reverberates across Papua New Guinea, questions linger about the future trajectory of U.S. engagement in the Pacific. The abrupt cancellation of President Biden’s visit highlights the challenges and complexities of balancing domestic priorities with international commitments. It also underscores the influence that global power dynamics can have on regional partnerships and perceptions.
For Papua New Guinea, the anticipated visit was seen as a significant milestone—a symbol of recognition and an opportunity to strengthen ties with the United States. Prime Minister James Marape expressed his honor at the prospect of Biden fulfilling his promise to visit the country. The excitement and preparations were palpable as billboards adorned the streets, and people eagerly anticipated the chance to sing and dance in celebration.
However, the announcement of the cancellation left many disheartened. Steven Ranewa’s words reflect the general sentiment shared by the people of Papua New Guinea. The news had spread like wildfire across the Pacific, generating waves of enthusiasm. But the sudden turn of events has had a demoralizing effect on both individuals and the nation as a whole.
The disappointment extends beyond Papua New Guinea, resonating with leaders and experts across the region. New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ decision to proceed with his trip to Papua New Guinea despite the cancellation reflects the importance placed on maintaining relationships and cooperation among Pacific Island nations. However, it also highlights the delicate balance between adapting to unforeseen circumstances and upholding commitments.
Anna Powles, the senior lecturer in international security, emphasizes the significance of the canceled visit in the context of U.S. foreign policy. The Pacific summit was envisioned as a follow-up to last year’s meeting in Washington, serving as a platform to deepen the U.S.’s engagement in the region. The cancellation raises concerns about the perception of the U.S. as a reliable partner and its ability to navigate complex geopolitical challenges.
China’s growing influence in the Pacific looms large in discussions surrounding the cancellation. Ranewa’s observations about China’s increasing presence in Papua New Guinea highlight a shifting landscape where regional nations seek assistance and investment from various global actors. The competition for influence between the U.S. and China is evident, and both countries vie for a stake in the Pacific’s strategic and economic significance.
Papua New Guinea, with its vast natural resources and strategic location, finds itself at the center of this geopolitical tug-of-war. As major powers vie for influence, the country must navigate its own path forward, weighing the benefits and risks of engaging with different actors. The canceled visit by President Biden serves as a reminder of the fluid nature of global relationships and the challenges faced by smaller nations in a complex international arena.
Looking ahead, the impact of the cancellation on U.S.-Pacific relations remains uncertain. While the Biden administration continues to express its commitment to the Indo-Pacific region, rescheduling the visit may prove challenging due to the president’s demanding schedule and upcoming elections. Nonetheless, Papua New Guinea and other Pacific Island nations will continue to seek opportunities for cooperation and collaboration, with or without a high-profile visit.
As the people of Papua New Guinea reflect on the dashed hopes of witnessing a historic visit, their resilience and determination to forge ahead remain strong. The public holiday declaration stands as a testament to their anticipation and pride in hosting a potential U.S. president. While the visit may not materialize as planned, the spirit of unity and celebration can still be embraced as a symbol of the nation’s resilience and its commitment to engaging with the world.