Papua New Guinea has signed a defence and maritime cooperation agreement with the US during the US Pacific Islands Forum in Port Moresby. The agreement was signed by defence minister Win Bakri Daki and US secretary of state Antony Blinken, who flew into the country early on Monday, in the place of US president Joe Biden. Before signing the agreements, prime minister James Marape defended himself against claims it could encroach on the country’s sovereignty after a leaked draft document suggesting it gives US personnel and contractors legal immunity; allows aircraft, vehicles and vessels operated by or on behalf of the US to move freely within its territory and territorial waters; and exempts US staff from all migration requirements. “The US and PNG have a long history, with shared experiences and this will be a continuation of that same path,” he said. “Papua New Guinea signed a generic SOFA [status of forces] agreement with other countries in 1989, and today with the signing of the ]defence and maritime agreements] it will only elevate the SOFA.” “And this cooperation will help build the country’s defence capacity and capabilities and also address issues such as Illegal fishing, logging and drug smuggling in PNG waters.” Blinken said that the agreement would provide $45m to help improve security cooperation and help PNG mitigate the effects of climate change, tackle transnational crime and improve public health. “We are proud to partner with Papua New Guinea, driving economic opportunities and are committed to all aspects of defence and maritime cooperation,” he said. Blinken told Pacific Leaders that the US was here to listen and find ways on how they can improve and do better in helping the Pacific. PNG’s location just north of Australia makes it strategically significant. It was the site of fierce battles during the second world war, and with a population of nearly 10 million people, is the most populous Pacific island nation. However, many in the Pacific are concerned about the increasing militarisation of the region and that Papua New Guinea could be stuck between an increasingly hostile US and China. Civil society groups and student unions have raised concerns over the defence cooperation agreement, with talks of protests spreading online over the weekend. Students at several universities have held protests against the signing of the agreement, amid concerns it will upset China. In response to news of Blinken’s visit to PNG, China warned against the introduction of “geopolitical games” to the region. PNG also welcomed India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, on Monday. Marape hailed India as the “leader of the global south” and promised to rally behind it as Modi held a summit there with Pacific island leaders. Modi told the 14 leaders of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation that India would be a reliable partner to small island states amid difficulties caused by supply chain disruptions and the climate crisis. India was committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific, he said. Earlier, Modi wrote on social media he had discussed “ways to augment cooperation in commerce, technology, healthcare and in addressing climate change” in a bilateral meeting with Marape on Monday. Blinken arrived in Port Moresby around 1am on Monday, travelling in Biden’s place after the US president was forced to cancel his plans to make a brief but historic stop there to sign the pact. Biden would have become the first sitting US president to visit a Pacific island, but he cancelled to focus on debt limit talks in Washington, prompting concerns about how reliable a partner the US is in the Pacific. Blinken said that the US and the Pacific shared a long history, “and whilst we get inspiration from the past, today is not about the past, but the future, and how we can work together. “We also have have shared priorities such as tackling the climate crisis, advancing inclusive economic growth for the people of the Pacific Islands, and highlighting the US commitment to realise a prosperous, resilient, and secure Pacific Islands region.” “I am grateful to be here and want to hear from all of you, on how we can do better and improve the US Pacific relationship,” he said. Blinken also conveyed Biden’s invitation to Pacific Islands leaders to visit Washington, DC, later this year for the second US summit with the Pacific Islands Forum. Marape thanked Blinken and welcomed him saying that, “whilst short, your visit demonstrates your country’s commitment to further enhance and add value to our existing bilateral ties with the view to progressing it to the next level”. “We welcome you to the Pacific, to PNG and thank you for coming to Port Moresby.” The former prime minister Peter O’Neill accused Marape of placing the country “at the epicentre of a military storm between China and the USA by agreeing to enter into defence arrangements with both superpowers without consultation with our people”. The opposition leader, Joseph Lelang, said last week: “We have a foreign policy of ‘friends to all and enemies to none’. We … should not be blinded by the dollar sign or be coerced into signing deals that may be detrimental to us in the long run.” Marape said on Monday there would be an increased presence of US military personnel and contractors over the next two years but that a US military base would not be established.