Australia sends seven ministers to Papua New Guinea for security, trade talks

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia is sending seven ministers and its police chief to Papua New Guinea to hold security and trade talks with its northern neighbour, government officials said on Tuesday, amid concerns over China's ambitions to expand its policing role in the Pacific Islands.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is boosting trade ties with China and revealed in January it was also in early talks with Beijing over policing cooperation, alarming Canberra and Washington, which struck a defence agreement with the largest Pacific Islands nation last year.

Beijing has already sent police to neighbouring Solomon Islands and Kiribati, and says it has a strategy to help Pacific Island countries maintain social order.

Australia has, however, said there should be "no role" for China in policing the Pacific Islands, and Australia will train more local security forces to fill gaps.

A police patrol boat donated by Australia was handed over in a ceremony on Tuesday attended by PNG's Prime Minister James Marape and Foreign Minister Justin Tkachenko, Australian Attorney General Mark Dreyfus and the two nations' police chiefs, PNG said in a statement.

Australia's Foreign Minister Penny Wong, Defence Minister Richard Marles, as well as ministers for cyber security, agriculture and fisheries, trade and international development are travelling to PNG to join the talks on economic and security cooperation on Wednesday.

"Papua New Guinea is one of our closest and most important defence partners, and is home to our largest defence cooperation program," Australia's Marles said in a statement.

The delegation to PNG takes place a day after Chinese Premier Li Qiang's visit to Australia.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli)