Papua New Guinea, Australia commit to closer security ties

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Papua New Guinea Foreign Minister Justin Tkachenko said on Wednesday the Pacific Island nation was "crystal clear" in partnering with Australia for security, as China pushes to expand its police role in a region where it is a major lender.

Australia sent seven ministers and its police chief to Papua New Guinea to hold security and trade talks with its northern neighbour on Wednesday, with Australia's Defence Minister Richard Marles noting it was the largest such delegation sent to any country.

On Thursday, the delegation will travel to the scene of last month's deadly landslide in remote Enga province, with Australia announcing support for a program to improve stability in PNG's highlands, including weapons management. Tribal conflict had hampered rescuers reaching the landslide.

The security and trade talks were held a day after China's Premier Li Qiang visited Australia. China has also sought a policing deal with PNG, and says it has a plan to help Pacific Island countries with social order.

"When it comes to China they are a strong economic trade partner to Papua New Guinea, just like Australia, and when it comes to security we have signed a bilateral security agreement with Australia," Tkachenko said at a livestreamed press conference.

"We as a government saw it crystal clear that we will continue to support and work and partner with Australia now and in the future for our security," he added.

Australia's Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the two sides had discussed the importance of "strategic trust" and Australia was appreciative of PNG's assurances.

"In a difficult and troubled world we look to our traditional partners, to Papua New Guinea, to be closer," said Marles.

Australia had cut visa processing times for PNG applicants from three months to seven days as part of efforts to cut red tape and draw the nations closer, he said.

The two countries signed a security deal in December that will see Australia spend A$200 million to help boost PNG's internal security, including the court system, police training and prisons.

The resource rich but largely undeveloped nation experienced deadly riots in January that saw businesses destroyed during a police strike.

Australia will boost funding to assist PNG prosecute financial crimes, and 70 police cadets have travelled to Australia for training.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Sharon Singleton)