Papua New Guinea had declared next Monday a public holiday in anticipation of a historic visit by U.S. President Joe Biden and other leaders from the region.
Police were tightening security, billboards were going up, and people were getting ready to sing and dance in the streets. Expectations were high for what would have been the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to any Pacific Island nation.
“I am very honoured that he has fulfilled his promise to me to visit our country,” Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape had written on Facebook.
Those expectations were dashed Wednesday when Biden cancelled the visit to focus on debt limit talks at home.
To be sure, many of the festivities will still be going ahead. Biden’s planned three-hour stopover – sandwiched between the Group of Seven meeting of wealthy democracies in Japan and a now-scrapped trip to Australia – was timed to coincide with a trip by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who will still meet with Pacific Island leaders to discuss ways to better co-operate. But now that Biden plans to return home directly after the G-7 meeting, many in Papua New Guinea are feeling deflated.
Steven Ranewa, a lawyer in the capital, Port Moresby, said Biden’s planned visit had been very big news across the Pacific, and he planned to watch the motorcades from the street.
“Everyone was excited,” he said. “But now that it’s been cancelled, it’s really demoralizing.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday that Biden still planned to visit Papua New Guinea and the trip was “not cancelled, postponed.”
“We’re looking forward to getting that back on the books,” she told reporters en route to Japan aboard Air Force One.
It’s unclear if the promise would assuage any of the disappointment.
Konio Anu, who manages a lodge in the capital, said she was saddened that Biden wouldn’t visit as expected, and wondered if people would still get the day off on Monday. She said she was waiting to see if one international guest who booked for Monday would cancel.
Some other leaders had their doubts as well. New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins deliberated most of the day before announcing that he would still go ahead with his trip to Papua New Guinea.
Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in international security at New Zealand’s Massey University, said that although Pacific leaders would understand that Biden was needed at home, the cancellation demonstrated how domestic U.S. politics can undermine the nation’s foreign policy agenda.
“Unfortunately, it speaks to a pattern of behaviour that causes many in the region to regard the U.S. as a less-than-reliable partner,” Powles said.
She said the meeting had been framed as a sequel to a summit held with Pacific leaders in Washington last year, and was supposed to represent a deepening of the relationship between the U.S. and the Pacific at a time when China is increasingly exerting its influence in the region.
The U.S. has recently opened embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga, and plans to open more in the region as it tries to reassert its presence in the Pacific.
Powles said the hectic schedule leading into the U.S. elections next year would make it difficult for Biden to reschedule.
Home to nearly 10 million people, Papua New Guinea is the largest Pacific Island nation by population. It is located just north of Australia on the eastern side of New Guinea island, the world’s second-largest island. The western side of the island is part of Indonesia. Papua New Guinea is relatively poor, with many people leading subsistence lives.
During a 2016 speech in Australia when he was vice president, Biden talked about his connections to the Pacific region and said that two of his uncles had fought in Papua New Guinea during World War II. He said one had been killed and the other had returned home badly injured.
But China ended up sending a top-level delegation first, after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Papua New Guinea for an APEC summit in 2018.
Ranewa, the lawyer, said that China’s increasing influence could be seen throughout the nation, whether it was in providing services or building infrastructure. He said some welcomed China’s help, while others did not.