Politics | Chris Hipkins

Chris Hipkins' PNG visit bolsters 'constructive' Pacific ties

In partnership with Matt Manukuo / Pacific Media Network

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins was feted with a 19-gun salute, thousands of excited locals and a can of Coke Zero during his whistle-stop visit to Papua New Guinea.

Hipkins was in the country for a short 24-hour visit for several bilateral meetings with Pacific leaders who were in PNG for the US Pacific Summit.

Hipkins, who was handed the can of Coke Zero by US embassy staff who knew of his well-publicised love for the drink, began the trip with bilateral meetings with PNG Prime Minister James Marape, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown.

It was the first time the prime minister had met the Pacific leaders in person, which he says was important to reinforce the relationship between New Zealand and the Pacific.

“I think it’s clear New Zealand is highly regarded, which I think all Kiwis should be very proud of. It’s something that reflects the strong, stable relationship we’ve had over many generations and something we highly value.

“It was a really constructive set of discussions we were able to have here. In addition to the formal meetings I had a number of one-on-one meetings with Pacific leaders to discuss mutual issues facing our various nations.”

After a meeting at PNG's Government House, Hipkins visited Gordon's Market and was greeted by thousands of marketgoers with a reception fit for a celebrity - more akin to what his predecessor Jacinda Ardern often experienced.

“It was a new thing for me but I think it reflects the warmth that is exhibited towards New Zealand,” Hipkins said.

“The market was funded by New Zealand and it’s a very valuable contribution we’ve made to the local economy here.”

The prime minister remarked to a smiling sea of thousands about the importance of New Zealand’s support for Papua New Guinea.

The Gordon’s Market is the largest market in the South Pacific and New Zealand has supported $15 million towards its development, with a number of locals sharing their praise for New Zealand’s funding.

“We have never had a prime minister of New Zealand come here to visit this market, so we are very proud about that,” said a local PNG policewoman.

Another attendee said: “We are so delighted and happy [for NZ’s support]. It really sustains the life of people in Port Moresby including central provinces. This is something that New Zealand has done really well in.”

The prime minister was swarmed as he moved through the market before he was whisked away to his next destination - the US embassy.

The prime minister met the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken for a short bilateral meeting between the two leaders. Blinken acknowledged Hipkins' appointment to the prime minister and said he appreciated the time to meet.

Blinken, who attended in President Joe Biden’s place due to the president needing to take part in domestic debt-ceiling negotiations, signed a historical agreement strengthening the relationship between PNG and the US.

The Bilateral Defence Cooperation and Shiprider agreements were signed at APEC house. Prime Minister Marape said the arrangements were important for the continued partnership between Papua New Guinea and the United States.

“It’s mutually beneficial, it secures our national interests in becoming a robust economy,” Marape said.

Despite public criticism and calls for more public consultation, Marape maintains the agreements are constitutional and will benefit PNG.

'We have not compromised'

“This signing in no way, shape, or form crosses into our sovereignty. We have not compromised our relationships with governments on the bilateral level.”

Prime Minister Hipkins then sat in on the US Pacific Forum with 16 other Pacific leaders, to discuss issues facing the Pacific.

It was there that Secretary Blinken apologised on behalf of the President for his absence - but invited the Pacific leaders back to the White House in autumn, for another Pacific forum, to discuss how the US can continue to support the Pacific.

At the end of his short visit, Prime Minister Hipkins said the trip was a significant step forward between New Zealand and the Pacific region.

“As I’ve said previously, while this visit was relatively short, it was significant. Regional unity is critical to the resilience of the Pacific and it was particularly encouraging to see the United States engaging so constructively with the Pacific Islands Forum members.

“This visit was also my first opportunity to meet many of my Pacific counterparts in person, and I thank Prime Minister Marape for hosting us so warmly.”