Papua New Guinea had declared a holiday next Monday in anticipation of a historic visit by the President of the United States Joe Biden and other leaders from the region.
Police tightened security, signs went up and people got ready to sing and dance in the streets. Expectations were high for what would have been the first visit by a sitting US president to anyone Pacific Island nation.
“I am very honored that he has fulfilled his promise to me to visit our country,” Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape wrote on Facebook.
Those expectations were dashed Wednesday when Biden cut short the visit to focus on debt limit talks at home.
To be sure, many of the festivities will still be going on. Biden’s planned three-hour stopover — sandwiched between the G-7 meeting in Japan and a now-cancelled 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 work together. But now that Biden plans to return home immediately after the G-7 meeting, many in Papua New Guinea feel 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 motorcade from the street.
“Everybody was excited,” he said. “But now that it’s been cancelled, it’s really demoralizing.”
Konio Anu, who runs a lodge in the capital, said she was saddened by the news and wondered if people would still get Monday off. She said she was waiting to see if an international guest who booked for Monday would cancel.
Some other leaders also had their doubts. New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins deliberated for most of the day before announcing he would still go ahead with his trip to Papua New Guinea.
Anna Powles, senior lecturer in international security at New Zealand’s Massey University, said that while Pacific leaders would understand that Biden was needed at home, the cancellation showed how domestic US politics can undermine the nation’s foreign policy agenda.
“Unfortunately, it speaks to a pattern of behavior that causes many in the region to view the United States as a less than reliable partner,” Powles said.
She said the meeting had been designed as a follow-up to a summit held with Pacific leaders in Washington last year and was meant to represent a deepening of the US-Pacific relationship at a time when China is increasingly exerting its influence in the region.
The US has recently opened embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga and plans to open more in the region as it seeks to reestablish its presence in the Pacific.
Powles said the busy schedule leading up to the US election 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 the island of New Guinea, 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 living subsistence lives.
During a 2016 speech in Australia when he was vice president, Biden talked about his connections to the Pacific region, saying 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 a APEC summit 2018.
Ranewa, the lawyer, said China’s growing influence could be seen throughout the country, whether it was providing services or building infrastructure. He said some welcomed China’s help, while others did not.